October 3rd, 2015

Unnecessary Organizational Shame & Guilt Related to Bullying

By Gary Namie, PhD

Individuals targeted for bullying by other employees, regardless of rank, suffer a great deal of personal shame. Sadly it is the consequence of being on the receiving end of humiliation, degradation and threatening misconduct. It freezes the person and inaction leads to stress-related health problems.

Shame is the negative emotion associated with a feeling of worthlessness. The external message directed at people being shamed is that they are worthless. It cuts to the person’s core sense of who they are. It says you are a bad person. Guilt feels similarly negative, but it differs from shame. The guilt message is that one did something wrong knowing there were options. Guilt is feeling bad over one’s behavior, one’s choices, not over one’s identity.

Guilt has a way of influencing organizations in a bad way, too. We’ve seen it all too often in our consulting. It leads to a paralysis, nearly a parallel form of inaction, an inability to solve the bullying problem that has festered for months or years.

For instance, good moral individuals, who may serve as Sunday church deacons, somehow fall into the trap of ignoring bullying because U.S. laws say they can. But gnawing at them is the knowledge that it is wrong to turn one’s back on suffering individuals. Personal guilt ensues. Then coommon rationalizations — “we have no policy,” “it’s a matter of he said/she said,” “I can’t believe the complainant – the story sounds too bizarre and extreme,” and “Bob is a friend — I’ve never seen him be cruel to anyone” — make it easy to move on. Guilt is assuaged.

Decision makers who become internal anti-bullying advocates avoid guilt through a much different path. They act on their internal moral code. They call us. But their fight is uphill in asking permission to address abusive conduct within the organization. They rarely get the permission they seek.

We think that organizational shame is one of the reasons. Yes, the same devastating emotion that wrecks lives of bullied targets can afflict leadership teams and executives. They themselves, as individuals, don’t feel worthless. Instead, at the organizational level, it works like this:

If we address bullying, what does that say about the organization and me as leader? Therefore, we will deny its existence and not disrupt current practices.

This is different than laziness. This is a false conclusion by an otherwise intelligent person who has subordinated her or his capacity for empathy to the need to maintain appearances that routine ways of operating need not be changed.

We think that reports of bullying that eventually do bubble up to the C-suite trigger feelings of organizational shame.

Organizational shame is unnecessary and misguided. It is no excuse to not act.

Mean interpersonal conduct is unavoidable in all organizations (except where C-suite leaders have made it unacceptable). It happens by default when people are left to concoct their own informal conduct rules and aggression and winning are the most prized attributes of workers.

There need be no shame. WBI’s national prevalence studies attest to the large numbers of workers affected. In 2014, we concluded that over 65 million workers are targeted for abusive conduct. It is not rare. It is far too common. Shame is the wrong emotion for organizations.

Guilt, by contrast, should prompt employers to act. Leaders who learn how extensively people have been harmed on their watch and fail to act should turn inward for moral guidance. Moral leaders suffer neither shame nor guilt. They are problem solvers. Keep negative emotions away from the pursuit of solutions that requires clear, collaborative thinking.

At WBI, we have solutions to bullying problems that many believe are intractable. That’s why we are the experts.

We can overcome organizational guilt. Your employees depend on you for their psychological safety.


Gary Namie, originator of the specialty consulting field for workplace bullying is co-author of The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011) and Senior Consultant for WBI Services for Employers.

Request services by calling Frank Mulcahy, 713-545-2222.


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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 3rd, 2015 at 4:27 pm and is filed under Traps to Avoid. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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