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Unfortunately we have some very unhealthy fibers woven into the fabric of our culture—unhealthy from the perspective of untold damage with no rewards. Dating back through pre-colonial Puritan days, shame has been a large part of our culture. In a simplistic, black-and-white, childlike view, shame can be instrumental as part of the “good vs. evil” dynamic. If you are good, you will feel the glow of righteousness, if not, shame will be yours.

If shame has any value whatsoever, it is only within the narrow framework of an internal “Evil Indicator.” That is to say, when you actually do harm/hurt someone, your own conscience will say “shame on you,” (usually with the internalized voice of your parent/inner judge).  This has the incredibly powerful effect of stopping us in our tracks, hanging our heads, and feeling “bad.” This is not what one would call a resourceful state.

So what in the world would bring this dynamic into the workplace?  Unfortunately, a mix of patterned unconscious behavior and less than conscious language usage. There is almost nothing more debilitating, and thus de-motivating than being made to feel shame. When a manager uses language that shames a worker, that worker will have numerous reactions, depending on his or her own relationship with shame.  The one reaction I have never seen or heard of is an excited, motivated, resourceful, can-do reaction. Even when someone genuinely reacts with wanting to do a better job, the shame they feel disables them from doing so.

Shame and blame are close cousins. They come from a “child” place rather than an “adult” place. Blame is the childhood vestige of not wanting to “get in trouble,” and so we blame someone else for whatever happened. Trying to off-load the shame by blaming someone else unfortunately doesn’t work; as you merely take on the shame of knowing you pointed the finger elsewhere. What is more, blame doesn’t figure into ANY solution process, whatsoever. It merely side-tracks the process for a useless foray into Shame-land. As a matter of fact, blame as an obstacle to process improvement is actually a big enough topic for its own chapter. Hmmm….

Back to the power of shaming language. When people feel lousy, they do lousy work. This is obvious, and empirically measurable.  Shaming obstructs productivity, creativity, and morale; not good for an organization. It can be done unconsciously, and have the same bad effect.

Here’s a real world example, where the consciousness or unconsciousness is not clear, and yet the damage was done: Long ago in a galaxy far away, while working diligently on a project for a client, I received an amazing E-mail. From my perspective, it was a perfect example of how to utterly de-motivate me. Although the client knew that I was fully committed and producing an abundance of deliverables beyond expectations; the language chosen for this E-mail questioned my dedication and professionalism, as well as if I was even doing the work.  There I was working my tail off, and among many other choice phrases, he actually used the words “if only you would step up…” and do what I was already doing? Ask yourself, what would go through your mind?  Would you ignore it and happily get back to work? Would it stop you in your tracks? Would you be motivated to jump back in?

On a conscious level, using language to shame a person into taking action is commonly called a “guilt trip,” and we all know how we react to them. Why in the world would we do unto others, what we can’t stand done unto us? Of course, using language to shame a person just to “down them a notch” is outright abuse, which has no productive purpose whatsoever.

On an unconscious level, most of this mess has no malicious intent,  but merely results from an unfortunate choice of words. Not being conscious of the actual words we use puts us in danger of this behavior, so there’s where we can put some intention. The repeating theme here is being Conscious.

Action Steps:

1. Remember that it’s a complicated process to transmit a concept residing in one brain into another; stay conscious and don’t do it in autopilot.

2. When you use words, pitch, tone, and volume to convey something, keep in mind the recipient’s relationship to those components. (The image we see connected to a word can be a vastly different image than the one they see.)

3. Keep in mind that your whole meaning could be shifted, and even side-tracked by your listener’s reaction to what you triggered. It’s important to us to express ourselves, but even more important for the listener to actually hear what we meant.

4. Take a little extra time and care with your communications. When trying to transmit a concept, put yourself in the receiving position, and see how it comes in. How can you lift someone, rather than downing them? How can you help them to a resourceful state, rather than shamed and bereft of motivation?

By avoiding shaming and blaming, you can keep the communication in a productive and positive dynamic, keeping people engaged and involved. And after all, when you get right down to it, won’t you feel better as well?

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