Shame degrades leadership

When we are caught in shame, we cannot be good mentors and leaders to the people who need us to be good leaders; our employees. Even when we are filled with shame, we may be able to set the vision, define what needs to be done, give instructions and deadlines, and hold people accountable. What we cannot do, however, is inspire our employees to bring their best selves to be present at work. Our shame not only shuts us down, it shuts everyone down around us.

No one wants to be in this situation. We all want to be a part of a team that hums along with power, resilience, and competence. When we are on a great team, or have managed to build one, the burden that sits on each person is lighter, including on the leader.


On great teams, people are:

  • Creative
  • Willing to take personal responsibility
  • Attentive and responsive to the needs of their fellow team mates
  • Honest in their own expressions
  • Fun and playful
  • Effective

It’s beautiful stuff.

So, what is shame?

Shame is our internal battle of not feeling good enough and believing this lie of inadequacy is true.


Shame gets in the way of great leadership, because we cannot adequately respond to or support our teams when we are caught in feelings of inadequacy.


We cannot congratulate people on a job well done when we have that nagging sense that something is wrong. We can be relentless in the hunt for mistakes to explain our own discomfort. We can control and blame, without improving anything.


These behaviors can seriously degrade a team, even ones that are mostly high functioning. When shame rises up, painful behaviors come out and everyone on the team has their own ways of avoiding the fall out. People stop communicating. They’ll only do the work that will pass, because it is too risky to bring forward our best selves when shame and it’s ugly manifestations are on the loose.


What to do?

First, we need to recognize shame for what it is. Shame can be hard for us to identify, because it feels horrible, we want to avoid it. We’ll suppress or discharge the feeling of shame as quick as we can by numbing our emotions or blaming others and defending ourselves.

All of us have the tendency to do this, but it’s more complicated to discharge shame on to others when you’re the leader. Your team is your responsibility. The way it functions has a lot to do with you – not just your hiring choices, but the daily hum of it all, as well. Leadership matters.


Are you discharging shame on your team?


Here’s some ways that shame can show up in leadership:

  1. Complaining about employees – If they only just did their jobs, we’d all be fine!
  2. Withholding authentic praise and celebration
  3. Micromanaging and control

Complaining about employees

There are a lot of potential reasons why employees fail at meeting expectations, but most likely it has nothing to do with what we are complainin about. When we stop blaming others and manage our own shame, we will likely see opportunities for improving our teams.


For the most part, employees want to be on a winning team.


They want to feel effective, competent, and included. If that’s not happening, it’s almost never because your employees are actually bad or incapable of getting it. That’s not to say bad hires don’t happen, but slowing down your reactions so you can identify, own, and manage your emotions opens up opportunities to see what’s working and not working more clearly. It also allows you to ask for feedback from the team about what they need. They likely know more than you do about how things are falling apart and what can be done to improve it.


Withholding authentic praise and celebration

Has it ever been hard for you to give praise and celebrate an employee when it’s totally deserved? Has gratitude ever been tough to reach for? I would be surprised if you said no.


Authentic praise is a difficult thing to do, because in involves exposing our own vulnerability.


In order to give authentic praise or show gratitude, we have to be able to acknowledge that we needed help or that the other person brought something to the table that we couldn’t. For those of us who struggle with admitting that we have needs, this is tricky. Obviously we all have needs, but let’s be honest here. We don’t often like to feel our needs (being “needy”), much less share them, or express heartfelt thanks to someone for meeting our needs.


However, sharing our needs is the hallmark of team work. We need to share our needs so that others have the opportunity to meet them.


When we’re caught in shame, we cannot easily say I need help, I don’t know it all, I don’t always have the best ideas, I may be wrong, I couldn’t have done what you did, etc. And yet, truly acknowledging these realities is required for true gratitude. To truly feel appreciated, people need to feel that they personally made a difference. It’s powerful to know that you personally brought something to the table that was truly appreciated because it met a need of someone in particular or of the team. It’s less powerful for someone to offer thanks, but to let it be known, even in small ways, that anyone could have done it or that it wasn’t special because it’s just part of the job.

Micromanaging and Control

When we are caught in shame, we tend to try to manage our external realities to reduce the feeling of shame. If we are not accepting responsibility for our own shame, we’ll look for reasons outside of ourselves. Clearly something is wrong, because I feel horrible. So, we look for reasons and there will always be “reasons.” We don’t live in a perfect world and we never will, so there will always be things that are wrong that we can use as scapegoats for our own emotions.

However, if we use external “reasons” for our emotional states, we get caught in perfectionism or become obsessed with controlling details and outcomes. This behavior also often involves invading other people’s boundaries to find what is wrong with them and their contribution to the team. We will step into other people’s areas of work without offering our assistance or feedback as a service to the other, but more as a hammer of control and criticism.


We come in so heavy on others (and ourselves), because we feel so heavy and we need some way to control the feeling.


Control will never resolve the feeling, but it does provide the sense that we’re doing something productive and gives a seductively powerful illusion that we’re doing what we can. We may end up doing good and necessary work through this process, but the emotion of shame doesn’t necessarily lift and it corrodes all of the relationships along the way.

Shame in Action

I was the number one culprit of this when I owned my own cafe. When I would get caught in a shame storm, all of these behaviors would pop out, like unwelcome toxic mushrooms. 

One moment stands out as the epitome of lost opportunity in leadership and relationship due to discharging shame. I employed a woman for a while with intense energy as a manager. She wanted to shine and make Hi Point the most brilliant cafe and catering company in Reno. Truth be told, I needed her energy. By the time she arrived on the scene, I was tired and she was on fire.

We, along with the rest of the team, did some great work together, although I struggled with truly letting her run with her plans and ideas, because I saw her doing work that I should have been doing. My shame was telling me that I should be able to be setting schedules and training people well. I should have been putting together the organization of a smooth catering machine. According to my shame, I should have been doing everything and then telling people what to do, because “that’s what bosses do.” My internal shame had a lot of opinions on all these matters and it got in the way of allowing my manager the space to do the work that she could and wanted to do better than I could.

When she left, I could not find it in myself to celebrate the gifts she honestly brought to the company. Not only did I not allow her to do her best work, I didn’t acknowledge her gifts or accomplishments she did acheive.

I remember the last day she left the kitchen, searching for me to acknowledge her and give her some of the love that was there to give. And I just sat there at my desk, focused on solving the latest problem with a scowl on my face. I met her eyes for a moment with a tiny smile, but not with the care that was wanted and earned. Not only did this needlessly damage our relationship, the rest of my staff took note, as well. 

My behavior had nothing to do with my manager and everything to do with my inability in that moment to acknowledge and feel the difficulty of my emotions. It was far easier to treat her as if she were a traitor for simply doing what she needed to do to care for herself and her family. This other company was run well by great people who had more to offer in terms of money, benefits, and flexibility. It was a good, smart move. It’s wasn’t her fault that I was in caught in a combination of panic and shame.

Dealing with Shame

According to the shame expert, Dr. Brene Brown, we can all build “shame resilience”, in large part because we all have shame. Shame isn’t the problem. The problems come in when we don’t feel our shame and resolve it in healthy, healing ways. We can feel, name, and transform our feelings of shame. We will experience it, but we don’t have to let it run the show. Here are her basic steps involved in resolving change.


Steps in resolving shame:

  1. Identify shame and know when it’s happening. What does it feel like?
  2. Can you let the sensation be present without reacting? What are you telling yourself What’s the story that’s causing the shame?
  3. Are the stories and messages you’re telling yourself actually true? Take a step back and answer whether you’d judge a loved one the way that you’re judging yourself.
  4. The shame cure is empathy from others – reach out to trusted people and tell them about how you’re feeling.
  5. Ask for what you need – Is there an unmet need hiding under the shame? 

Brene Brown’s research and writing on shame can truly be transformative in the quality of all of our lives, including at home, work, and all other aspects of our lives. I encourage you to find her TED talk, her several great books on the subject, and workshops.


  1. What does shame feel like in my body? How do I know when I’m feeling shame?
  2. What are my common ways of discharging shame? Or do I smother it? What happens?
  3. Who do I have in my life who I can call upon to hear my vulnerable stories and be trusted to be empathetic?
  4. Who do I know who understands the shame triggers of leadership? Entrepreneurship?
  5. Do I have needs that typically buried under my shame storms?
  6. How is shame showing up in my teams at work or in life?