Shame in Organizations Kills People

During the last three weeks, I experienced one of the most devastating working atmospheres an organization can have. I worked as a freelancer in fifteen different retail shops of a well-known brand in Germany.

I heard of several employees that the retail sector is one of the worst sectors you can work in. I met unmotivated employees, unqualified shop managers, and counterproductive incentive systems. After analyzing fifteen different shops and fifteen different shop managers in the last 3 weeks I am certain that retail shops promote one of the worst working atmospheres you can possibly create.

I experienced only in one of fifteen shops an atmosphere of warmth, joy, trust, and corporation. 93% of all shops I visited were marked with a devastating, harmful, and demotivating working climate. I and my two working mates would not have wanted to work a single day in such a climate.

We saw leaderboards between single employees and between retail shops. We heard shop managers criticizing employees for the tiniest mistakes. We met shop managers calling all of his employees stupid. We felt the insincere friendliness of most of the employees. We met employees who hate their job. We even met an employee who has fallen into a deep depression because of a former shop manager. In 13 of 15 shops, we have not even heard a sincere appreciation for the job we did.

What is the reason for such a devastating working climate?

The retail chain we worked for was supporting a climate of shame. It is measuring the performance of single employees and the achievements of different shops against each other. Instead of creating a feeling of unity, and belonging we experienced an atmosphere of shame, fear, and competition. This atmosphere is a result of wrong understood benchmarking among employees.

Leaderboards are Killing your Employees Self-Worth

All of us have some time in their lives experienced the feeling of shame. It is usually triggered by our perception of what others think about us. Concepts like leaderboards and benchmarking, where performance is compared to certain norms, have a hazardous effect on an organization’s productivity. By creating leaderboards organizations support an atmosphere of shame. For most of the employees, a leaderboard has  a criticizing effect. Leaderboards show others how we have done and what we have achieved. Our self-worth is in general attached to how others respond to our results. If we know that a leaderboard exists we fear that we will be criticized or rejected when not meeting the expectations of others. We feel shame when not meeting the quota or not being appreciated by our boss. Comparisons between employees trigger shame. By not being the number one on the leaderboard employees feel that their work is not enough for their organization. They start feeling like an unworthy part of the organization. This shame leads to disengagement and depression and as a result employees stop trying to improve themselves as they have the feeling that they are never good enough anyway. Employees stop working hard or they quit completely.

An atmosphere of shame in organizations is harmful. Organizations need to get rid of shame. But how can organizations get rid of shame? We only feel the feeling of shame when we are afraid of the opinions of others about us. Instead of implementing leaderboards or quotas organizations need to focus on creating an atmosphere of trust, corporation, unity, and empathy. The biggest impact on the employees of retails shops has probably the shop manager herself. Instead of using benchmarking techniques among employees or criticizing employees managers need to express problems within their shop or division openly with all employees. By mentioning and discussing the problems of your shop you can create an atmosphere of trust. This can be the first step of getting rid of an atmosphere of shame. 

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