Shame as a Performance Management Tool

Article by Mike Chaput on February 01, 2019
Mike Chaput
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One of the most important leaders in Total Quality Management is a guy named Edward Deming. Deming has a robust academic background including a BS in Electrical Engineering, a Masters in both mathematics and physics, along with Ph.D. from Yale. He’s a smart dude, but he is most famous for his teachings that revolutionized manufacturing in Japan following WWII.

In his book, Out of the Crisis, Deming created a simple list of 14 principles required to achieve the highest levels of quality, one of those being “Drive out fear”.

A culture of fear gets the job done at a high cost 

Early in my IT career, our most senior engineer was a Russian immigrant. I’ll just call him Chekhov. He was a versatile and talented guru in numerous areas. Chekhov was the classic lone wolf who learned everything he knew the hard way. He worked long hours and read technical manuals with voracity. He was tough as nails and had to overcome a language barrier and cultural issues to become a terrific and highly valued IT expert.

Chekov had a real hard time mustering empathy for the struggling up and comer because nobody had struggled more than he had. Furthermore, he identified his struggle as the single most important thing that led him to get so good.

Chekhov loved certs and had a ton of them. His favorite thing to say when another engineer dared to ask him for help was, “Give me your certification!” After some hazing, Chekhov would usually help, but that subtle form of shaming made it clear that to get his help meant swallowing your pride. You can imagine nobody really wanted to ask for help unless they were desperate. The truth is (and we need to acknowledge this before moving forward) that specific culture drove a lot of technical learning.

Some of us “grew up” in a culture where hazing was the norm, maybe you’ve seen a culture like this. Because of this, our leadership unwittingly has a high tolerance/immunity towards it. It’s a blind spot and sometimes we barely even notice it. It stands to reason that we may have a difficult time squashing it. What’s worse, is that there is part of us that appreciated the hazing because we know we learned a lot in that environment. 

To move past shaming, I believe we first must acknowledge the benefits that inspiring a culture through shame brings:

Positive effects of a shaming culture:

  • It causes people to work harder
  • It nudges people to prepare more
  • It makes people dig deeper into their abilities, skills, experience
  • It drives learning and or other types of behavior 

However, it also has some serious side effects that outweigh any benefits.

Negative side-effects of a shaming culture:

  • It drives fear in the organization and so violates a fundamental tenant of quality management set forth by Deming. No one can give their best performance until they feel secure.
  • It incentivizes people to avoid seeking help and many times by the time they do seek help “the s**t has (already) hit the fan”. This goes against our aspirational value of excellent client experience.
  • People learn instinctively to ask for help only to those members of the team they trust not to shame. This can circumvent the chain of command and process. It often leads to the “blind leading the blind”
  • Employees will lean toward covering up errors which we must see in real time. Covering up errors prevents the company from important learning and corrective actions.
  • It breaks the interpersonal bonds that are so necessary for collaboration, problem-solving, and feeling connected/fulfilled at work.
  • Shaming erodes our people’s self-confidence. And self-confidence is one of the most important attributes of being a professional computer expert.
  • Shaming doesn’t allow you to “have each other’s backs” or “be cool to each other” or “bring positive energy” - aspirational values that we hold dear at Endsight.
  • Shaming people inhibits them from being vulnerable and authentic. Something that Endsight is all about.

Point being, shame is the wrong tool. If we inspire performance through shame, we have lost the way. We will have strayed from our higher selves for temporary boost in performance. We will have sold a small piece of our soul to do it. In the end, any temporary boost in performance we see will become overwhelmed by negative byproducts overtime. For Endsight, we choose to take the long view instead.

Shaming isn’t just a performance management tactic used by managers. Peers may wish to change the behavior of their peers which, without direct authority, could resort to shaming to effect change in others. We must find OTHER tactics to impact performance and quality.

What about the victims of shame?

I’d like to switch the topic to the receiving of shame. Let’s dig a little deeper into why people use shame. We already acknowledge that it works in driving behavior. However, it’s a little more complex. People use shame primarily because that tactic was used on them.

Most likely, it was used by their parents when they were young. Their parents, who loved them, used shaming to drive performance in school, sports, or simply to cultivate obedience. Those people probably accomplished a lot in their life and career and thus associate shaming with performance. Users of shame often do so instinctively, and most are unaware that they are even doing it. In many cases, they have positive intent, because they believe it will help the target improve.

From this vantage, it may be easier to see what we could do when we are on the receiving end of shame.

Breaking down shame

Let’s break down shame. Shame is different than remorse. Feeling remorseful is healthy. Feeling sorry that you let someone down or made a mistake that created pain for others is part of being human.

Shame on the other hand, is a judgment we make unto ourselves about our fundamental value as a person. An outsider may make well-reasoned arguments about why we should feel ashamed (Eg. a practiced prosecuting attorney); however, never forget that you are your own judge and jury. Only we, in our mind and our heart, may cast the verdict on our value.

The cure to feeling ashamed is vulnerability. Shame requires secrecy, silence, and judgment. Vulnerability does not equal weakness. Vulnerability is the willingness to take an emotional risk and it takes real courage. At Endsight we aspire to be courageous.

What can you do if you feel like you are being shamed inside (or outside) the workplace?

Have empathy for the other person

A difficult ask to be certain  but chances are they’ve been shamed a lot in their life and aren’t even aware of what they are doing. When someone is shaming you, one technique is to picture them, as a child, getting the very same treatment from their parents. From that perspective, it’s a little easier to have empathy.

Assume a positive intent

What if they are just trying to help you improve? Try translating what they are saying, in your mind, to something that you would hear as more inspiring. Turn, That’s horrible work, into, “I believe you are capable of doing incredible work.

Pay attention to your own interpretation and what your internal voice is saying

Often, what’s said isn’t that bad at all. It’s what we “heard” in our head that’s the real problem. If you feel a lot of self-judgment, trying choosing remorse instead of shame. Remember, making mistakes is a human trait, not a personal trait. If your mistake or error caused someone pain, then definitely apologize, but avoid making “the fundamental attribution error”. This is when you assume the problem is an immutable attribution as opposed to a temporal passing event. “I’m bad at ...” as opposed to “I messed that up. Or even better, “I learned a lot from that."

Find someone you trust to share with

Shame requires secrecy and the killer to shame is empathy. The most powerful words when we are in a struggle are, Me too.” Find that person you can rely on to be vulnerable with.

Shame simply isn’t worth it - Don’t do it

There are alternative ways to inspire people to think harder, work harder, learn more, be more careful, or dig deeper. Shame isn’t even a last resort. If an employee doesn’t fit, that gives no excuse to shame. It’s even possible to manage an employee all the way to a termination of employment and still leave that worker with his or her pride intact. Our focus needs to be inspiring our people’s best performance without fear, without blame, and without shame.


Note: This article originally appeared as an internal email to the entire Endsight team in October of 2018. It has been modified slightly to be useful and applicable to our clients and business friends.

Tags: Culture, Productivity

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