Shame and Blame Leadership

Dave Blundell
Published on:
June 15, 2020

The opposite of shame is vulnerability, which requires safety.

Inspired by Brene Brown’s new book Dare to Lead, the picture of a “shame and blame” organizational culture crystallized that which holds most organizations captive from the effectiveness the world needs them to have. The financial cost of a shame and blame culture results in lost sales from lack of engagement, lost morale, wasted time, turnover and grievances. The human cost is far worse. 

What does shame and blame look like? It’s based on the understanding that “guilt” means I made a mistake or did something wrong (or even bad), and “shame” means I am bad and, therefore, not worthy of connection. In an organizational culture where emotional safety is not present, we are forced to look out to protect ourselves. Here are some examples of what a shame and blame culture might look like:

  • When even a couple of leaders are feared by others who are scared to do something wrong.
  • When words like “I told you so”, or “I could have told you that” are used to minimize healthy discovery 
  • When people’s past mistakes are held onto, cause stereotypes to form, and become the filter used to determine their worthiness for future endeavors. 
  • When one immediately looks for a scapegoat when something goes wrong, rather than looking for their contribution to the problem in order to grow. 
  • Even when in the relational familiarity of a team, one throws out sarcastic and cutting words in front of others. “It was only a joke” becomes the justification for making someone look small, so the joker can look bigger.

A shame and blame management culture comes from the desire to hold onto power, self-protect, and jockey for favor. Sometimes it simply comes from the wounded and insecure places leaders lead from. It leads to a tragic lack of safety that, in turn, leads to a lack of creativity and risk-taking necessary for producing results. It also leads to not having each other’s backs, destroys trust and contributes to people “armoring up,” as Brene Brown puts it.

The opposite of shame is vulnerability, and vulnerability requires safety. It requires a leader to exemplify the safety that leads to vulnerability, and then call out shame and blame when it shows up. And when I say it takes a leader, I don’t mean it takes THE one top leader of the organization. It takes leaders and influencers throughout to be vigilant about creating and preserving a culture of safety that leads to vulnerability.

Vulnerability produces the kinds of relationships and discussions that bind teams together to creatively talk about solutions to the biggest problems we face. Vulnerability is the predisposition that makes leaders either teachable and self-examining or not; something so elusive to so many of the most gifted leaders. I can work with the strongest of leaders who are teachable and reflective, but it's almost impossible to work with leaders who think they’ve “got it”, and who don’t seek out the truth about how they come across to the people they work with. 

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