Francesca Cordona – Coach and Organisational consultant.
A longstanding member of the Tavistock Consulting team and a highly experienced organisational consultant, Francesca Cardona has written several papers in the field of organisational dynamics and consultation. Francesca’s most recent book, Work matters- Consulting to leaders and Organizations in the Tavistock tradition’ was published by Routledge in April 2020. In this Insights piece Francesca explores the nature of shame and the impact it can have on leaders.
Feelings of failure can evoke strong emotions often linked to individual vulnerabilities and disruptive organizational dynamics. The public nature of working in an organisation makes us more exposed to these feelings and vulnerable to shame. In addition, the anxiety radiating from the organisational task frequently leads to a dynamic of mistrust that ‘jeopardize the possibility of containment of fears and tensions within the organizations’ (Lohmer and Lazar, 2006).
An excessive fear of losing the positive image of oneself is often related to a work setting where difficulties and complex problems are not dealt with in an open way, and where it does not feel possible to acknowledge that mistakes are sometimes inevitable and poor performance is not just the responsibility of one or few individuals. In such a context, relationships among staff tend to be defensive and blaming of each other, hindering the possibility of learning from experience.
Am I an Impostor?
Joe, a senior executive in a large global company, had enjoyed a good career. He was promised a new role that he felt was well earned after many years of hard work. His new boss encouraged him to apply for the position, but eventually chose someone else.
Joe was devastated. He felt betrayed by his ‘work family’ and profoundly humiliated. It was a ‘public’ humiliation: everyone knew he had applied, and he was expecting to get the job. His current role was also going to be made obsolete in the next few months and he now found himself without a clear career future, facing the possibility of redundancy.
Joe thought his career was crumbling and started to doubt his own value and competence. He felt paranoid about his organisation, fearing people would find out he was not really what they originally thought.
Was Joe an impostor? His emotional reactions were linked in part to a difficult upbringing and inner vulnerability, however, the organisational culture, a highly competitive and quite ruthless one, contributed to his experience of shame. Hogett (2017) makes a distinction between depressive shame and paranoid shame
Depressive shame is a quite healthy emotion because it might lead to disappointment with ourselves and, in turn, to a resolve to address our failures and meet our goals and ideas. Paranoid shame on the other hand might be a much more corrosive feeling of humiliation where one feels just not good enough ..all or nothing, where failure means uselessness’. (Paul Hoggett,2017)
Shame affects both the organisation and the individual: it is the possibility of shame that leads organisations to act too quickly and get rid of ‘the bad apple’ without thinking. It is the shame of being seen to do something wrong or to be seen as inadequate that contributes to the collapse of confidence and competence in the individuals involved.
In the example above the consultancy input had an important function in restoring some capacity for reflection and a sense of perspective for Joe. It helped him to explore and deal with his feelings of guilt and despair, and to manage the wish to blame others or give it all up.
The challenge for organisations and individuals alike is to move from persecutory shame to depressive shame, accepting shame as, at times, an inevitable ingredient of the complexity of organisational life and to be able to feel ashamed without collapsing under the scrutiny of other people.
Cardona, F. (2020), Work Matters: Consulting to leaders and organizations in the Tavistock tradition, London: Taylor & Francis.
Lohmer, M. and Lazar, R.A. (2006) ‘The consultant between the lines of fire: the dynamics of trust, mistrust and containment in organisations’ in, Organisational and Social Dynamics, 6 (1); 42-62.
Hoggett, P. (2017) OPUS Lecture, Shame in Organisations.