The selective death of shame

Sexual harassment is a major  issue in organizations and justifiably so. Shame and shaming  play a meaningful role in the anti harassment effort; all sexual harassment must end hopefully without sterilizing the work environment as described in the Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan-

Our great Mikado, virtuous man,
When he to rule our land began,
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.

So he decreed, in words succinct,
That all who flirted, leered or winked
(Unless connubially linked),
Should forthwith be beheaded.

And I expect you’ll all agree
That he was right to so decree.

However in many area of organizational life, shame is dead.  Here are just a few examples that come to mind. The great push for job-eliminating technology; the masquerading of unemployment as the gig economy. Health care gets better the higher you are ranked in the organization. Management buys new gadgets whilst cutting benefits to labour. Management flies first class, or business, absolving themselves from company travel policy. Reduction in force is carried out whilst senior management is on ski vacation. The list goes on and on. (I forgot to mention pay gaps between the plebs and the patricians).

Certain OD consultants and many HR-cum-spinner business partners serve as pacifiers for these ugly phenomenon which impact more than  one gender.

HR is the classic servant of the status quo, so I do not expect them to challenge anything like the issues I describe.  HR will often “bless it and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament.” (Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice)

OD practitioners who sell commercialized products are probably making a living doing engagement surveys which “test” the waters letting management know how hot the water is. Or perhaps they are doing “coaching” to under-performers. Or perhaps cross dressing as change managers for a new reorg.

Shame/shaming is every so rare, because there is no real challenge to the present economic model and the derivative organizations forms which serve the economic model.

I do hope that shaming will eventually address these issues, because it a very effective tool. But OD won’t be there. Our values died when we stopped being contrarians and jumped into bed with HR business partners. And pardon me for saying “bed”.


15 thoughts on “The selective death of shame

  1. Hi Allon

    and don’t forget King Gama’s song from Princess Ida (remind you of anyone?)…

    If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:
    I’m a genuine philanthropist — all other kinds are sham
    Each little fault of temper and each social defect
    In my erring fellow creatures, I endeavor to correct
    To all their little weaknesses I open people’s eyes;
    And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;
    I love my fellow creatures — I do all the good I can —
    Yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!
    And I can’t think why!

    To compliments inflated I’ve a withering reply;
    And vanity I always do my best to mortify;
    A charitable action I can skillfully dissect;
    And interested motives I’m delighted to detect;
    I know everybody’s income and what everybody earns;
    And I carefully compare it with the income-tax returns;
    But to benefit humanity however much I plan
    Yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!
    And I can’t think why!

    I’m sure I’m no ascetic; I’m as pleasant as can be;
    You’ll always find me ready with a crushing repartee
    I’ve an irritating chuckle, I’ve a celebrated sneer
    I’ve an entertaining snigger, I’ve a fascinating leer
    To everybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two;
    I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute — and I do
    But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can
    Yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!
    And I can’t think why!

    Nowadays we dismsiss lousy interpersonal skills as merely being somewhere on the autism scale (which is trendy and highly desirable in Silicon Valley and IT companies).

    Season’s Greetings and all that

  2. A highly original post, Allon, featuring the Mikado and highlighting the power of shaming.

    Although we are in the midst of the Silence Breakers’ wave right now, with shame galore, I fear that after this wave has dissipated, Hollywood and congress will, like the corporate world, go back to their old harassing ways.

    There is no institutional presence for shaming, no office of the Director of Shame. It never was OD. That was never it’s role.

    As for HR, it should have owned this but, as you point out, HR has been less than effective. (Some think HR can improve:

    So who ought to own this vital organizational function? I suggest the corporate communication department. Typically staffed by cynical Journalism types, maybe they could be the agents of change who sniff out misconduct and expose it.

    Imagine the monthly Column of Shame feature in the employee newsletter?

    Happy Holidays!


  3. Recently, a group photo was taken during a party on the Hill (where the Canadian parliament sits). Three people were giddily assembled playing along the festive mood. Each of them represented polarized political ideologies. So, they stood beside one another waiting for the click of the iphone. As they were putting on their best smile, one of the men in the trio commented: « This is not what I expected as a ménage à trois » In the aftermath of the festive celebrations, the female member wrote: « This comment made me utterly uncomfortable. I found it « déplacé » and sexist «  The member who made the comment delivered a heartfelt apology renewing his personal and political commtment to inclusion in all its forms.

  4. I agree that no one is in charge of shaming in organizations. Ideally everyone should, but that’s just wishful thinking.

    On the other hand, I worry that even if there were some shaming done, the culprits would just feel ashamed, not guilty. They would act just to avoid being discovered again, without really taking justice or others’ well-being into account.

  5. I found this to be a very interesting point – indeed I was having a conversation with someone about the harassment problem that has emerged from the dark and the concept of shame was brought up. Your point is well taken but I would differentiate here between shame and guilt. Helen Block Lewis distinguished these two in that shame acts as a cover of feelings, it is about self where self is experienced as helpless where as guilt is about action, the experience of injuring others. When shame is used as the tool to address behavior you may get more shame -and more cover since it reflects the persons inner perception of self. Guilt recognizes an injury to other and acknowledges responsibility and reparation.
    What is going on in many ways is about shame, but not about guilt – thus the response is avoidance and denial and not about correction.

      • Your explanation is more precise, Maggy, thank you!
        What I was thinking about this shame-avoidance vs guilt-correction issue is that if corporations had some shaming going on, harassment or other bad behavior would at least receive some kind of punishment (being ashamed). What other options are there to change behavior? I don’t think anyone can easily instill the feeling of guilt to harassers. Without shaming, everything will continue as it is.

        • One of the challenges of guilt is that it requires the basic ethical premise that hurting others is bad. Its not getting caught that is bad, it’s the actual hurting of others. Sometimes the reverse works well – to praise and highlight acts which do not hurt others. That avoids shame but supports guilt.

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