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Lucy Ball is a leadership coach and facilitator

Feedback and Shame

As is often the case with these journal posts, the topics seem to pick me. This week the topic is feedback and shame. I’ve had a number of conversations about and encounters with this topic in the last few weeks which have caused me to ask myself some questions:

1. Do I pay enough attention to the risk of shaming my clients during coaching and team development, particularly during feedback?
2. Do leaders in organisations sufficiently understand the nature of shame?
3. Is avoiding shame possible or even desirable?

I love how long it takes the Chambers Dictionary to define shame:
The humiliating feeling of having appeared unfavourably in one’s own eyes, or those of others, by having failed, offended, or been made to feel foolish, or a similar feeling on behalf of anything one associates with oneself
(37 words and 187 characters)

Not easily summed up but instantly recognisable.

The Dalai Lama with Dr Paul and Eve Ekman (www.atlasofemotions.org) does not class shame as one of the 5 basic human emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust) but as disgust turned against oneself. Others (Izard, Tomkins) give shame its own place in the list.

My personal experience of shame is a hot, tight-chested rush of discomfort that leaves me feeling childlike and vulnerable. It might be followed by tears or by anger. It is always followed by self-flagellation – I messed up, I wish I could take what I did back. A bad shame attack can lead to me to lose sleep and be wincing for days. I want to ask you if any of that sounds familiar? And I note in doing so that another facet of the experience is the feeling at the time that no-one else could possibly feel shame as keenly as me!

Feedback is a particularly shame-prone activity. The old feedback sandwich might well be re-named the shame sandwich. At the Gestalt International Study Centre, where I have learned a great deal in recent years, the word sting is aptly used to describe the inevitable hurt of hearing that you don’t live up to your own or someone else’s standard.

One senior leader I know has found feedback so difficult that he would literally hit himself in the car on the way home after an appraisal. Another described feeling spurned and despondent after a group feedback exercise in which it was suggested he should speak less in meetings.

I have mused over tea with a colleague this week about whether shame can be trained out of us by exposure just as controlled confrontation with spiders is claimed to be a successful treatment for arachnophobia. We laughed. But the evidence from those working with shame in a psychotherapeutic context is no laughing matter. Those I know who do such work suggest that there is no way to acclimatise oneself to self-loathing without the risk of deepening trauma and therefore that risk needs to be carefully managed.

When we are working in organisations we don’t often know people very well. We don’t know their history or their experiences with shame in the past. The British Crime Survey reported in 2016 that 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic abuse. The statistics for adults who have experienced abuse in childhood are harder to pin down but one can safely assume that many of our colleagues have had humiliating and shameful experiences as children even if not as a victim of crime. Many mental illnesses or behavioural adaptations such as personality disorders and post traumatic stress disorder make shame particularly hard to bear and can lead to a loss of sense of self and grounding that can be extremely stressful. Mental illness on the rise everywhere means more colleagues more at risk.

So what, as leaders and coaches, do we need to do about this? Giving feedback is in the job description and is a go-to tool in the leadership development toolkit. How can we develop as leaders if we don’t hear from others what they think and feel about us? We need to know our reputation and impact in order to make decisions about our influence in the world.

I don’t have all the answers but I do have five practices which seem to work for me even though I don’t always get it right. See them as food for thought rather than a recipe for success.

1 Obsessing about trust building and safety in relationships and in the environment or group setting
2 Always working within a contract, within boundaries, with confidentiality and with the client’s permission
3 Using tools such as the Hogan Inventory’s ‘Adjustment’ scale to assess likely responses to feedback and calibrate appropriately
4 Naming feedback as my own experience of observable behaviour, not as judgement
5 Having explicit conversations with clients about the shame of feedback and their responses to it now and in the past.

I’d be interested in what you have learned in your own work.

The best conclusion I can muster today about this topic is that the sting of feedback is an occupational hazard. It seems to me we have to risk stinging and being stung in order to live fully but that we should never underestimate how much we might affect our colleagues and clients in the process. The pain of shame does not go away with practice but we can stay curious about it and continue to learn how each of us can bear giving, receiving and recovering from that sting over and over.

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