Shame as a motivator

Shame may have a powerful effect on behavior, but it isn’t a sound foundation for personal or organizational growth

shameI was recently in a seminar with some very senior and distinguished leaders, and heard one leader say that he frequently uses guilt as a compass to decide what to do.  I found this comment sad and troubling.  Here was this incredibly accomplished leader, who believes that feeling guilty is what guides him to do the right thing.

I was reminded of a recent article in Scientific American Mind.  Diana Kwon, in her piece titled “For Shame,” cites recent studies that have linked positive behavior outcomes to the experience of feeling shame. (Scientific American Mind, Vol 27, Num 3, May/June 2016)  Kwon writes that shame, including public shame, can motivate people to improve performance and behavior because of their worry that others may see them negatively.  Studies have shown that shame has caused people to adapt their behavior in order to manage outward perception.

As I thought about using guilt as a compass and seeing shame as a motivator, I started wondering about how different the two feelings are, and what the implications are for leadership.

As Kwon explains it, “guilt is linked to a specific action or behavior, whereas shame is focused on the self.”  As I reflected on the statement I heard from the leader, I realize that it could have been about feeling guilty for things he’s done, or he may have been talking about the shame he experiences when something makes him feel guilty.  Perhaps it’s really shame that motivates.

As I take this a step further, I realize what I really feel troubled by is that both negative emotions are used to motivate subordinates daily.  We want responsibility assumed when mistakes are made, and many times only feel satisfied when we have assigned blame and the responsible people have been made to “feel bad” for their actions.  It isn’t enough to know that the mistake was fixed and that steps have been taken to ensure that it won’t happen again.  We want them to feel it.

As I see it, there are several problems with using shame or guilt as a compass in our personal life or as a leadership tool:

  1. it assumes that the individual who erred feels a concern for their outward perception that may or may not exist.  And even if it does, shame often leads to “self-defensive motivations” (as Kwon observes) instead of growth and development
  2. it encourages a culture of hiding mistakes
  3. it creates a culture of fear where innovation and adaptation can be hindered
  4. it elevates motivational leadership (both positive and negative) over inspirational leadership (positive tools and examples), inhibiting the growth of people and organizations.

Here’s the bottom line.  Regardless of the power of shame documented in recent studies, shame should not be used as a tool to motivate behavior change.  As leaders, we need to inspire change through growth and development, and that cannot be accomplished when we are more concerned with shaming individuals than solving problems and growing leaders.