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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Organizational Leadership and Shame

Psychoanalytic explorations of the role of affect in organizations to date have focused largely on anxiety, guilt, mourning and depression, anger and the expression of aggression and rivalry and envy. These affects tend to relate in large measure to the problems associated with intra-psychic conflict, rather than the fate of self-regard and associated affects. The affect of shame has been largely ignored, in spite of its potential relevance to a number of important organizational phenomena. The power of shame, as well as our potential to ignore that power emerges from several factors. First, the affect can and in many cases does go unnoticed (Morrison, 1984, Lewis, 1971). Shame is linked with a number of intra-psychic phenomena that are accompanied by other affects, such as guilt (Erikson, 1950, Lewis, 1971). However, the nature of shame is such that it supports the conscious and unconscious suppression of its experience, which supports its rather hidden expression. Second, as an affect associated with self-regard and therefore narcissism it is reflects both intra-psychic as well as social psychological factors. Perhaps most importantly, the potential for shame is probably an inherent aspect of the relationship between individuals and organizations. Identification with an organization links organizational effectiveness and one's personal sense of adequacy. If I am part of an organization, then the stature of the organization, its successes and failures, reflects heavily on me, particularly if work is an important part of my life. If my organization is inadequate, that maybe I am as well. Shame motivates the need to hide one's vulnerabilities. Thus, when an organization is moving through uncharted waters, and people are feeling most vulnerable (during a needed organizational transition or the management of a failure) shame may impede the willingness of individuals to be open about their problems, with the result that important issues may not receive appropriate attention and learning may be inhibited. Most consultants, and leaders, know from experience that people tend to shut up when things aren't going well. However, this reaction is often attributed to organizational politics and the forces that drive organizational politics, such as performance appraisal and compensation systems. However, viewing this problem from the perspective of shame may add another dimension to our understanding of the challenges associated with helping organizations manage necessary transitions. In the discussion that follows, I'll first describe the phenomenon of shame and explore its underlying theoretical foundation. I'll then offer several brief examples organizational phenomena that illustrate the presence of shame. Two cases studies will describe the hypothesized impact of shame in more contextual detail and provide a rationale for what might be described as organizational shame and its relationship to leadership. Finally, I'll offer some tentative implications of this analysis for organizational actors, particularly leaders and consultants. One of the critical tasks of leadership is to help the organization face the truth about itself (Heifitz, 1994) so that it may adapt more effectively to its environment. It is, then, ultimately up to an organization's leadership to come to grips with their own, and their organization's real or imagined inadequacies and address those inadequacies. Not an easy task, to be sure. It may be that the health of an organization's identity, which will be discussed in the concluding section, can serve as an indicator of the presence of organizational shame. Given that shame is an affect that is not been fully explored by psychoanalytically oriented organizational scientists, it is my hope that this paper will set the stage for further discussion and research of this most interesting and important affective experience.