Defining ethics is relatively simple. An ethical frame work is a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture. Ethical systems are varied in terms of scale (individual, group, organisation or society) and make up, with each framework having its own unique characteristics in terms of make up and focus. What does bind them together is their basis on shared and often introjected rules for behaviour.

Introjection is a psychoanalytical term with a variety of meanings. Generally, it is regarded as the process where the subject replicates in itself behaviours, attributes or other fragments of the surrounding world, especially of other subjects. These then combine to form a way of behaving that is shared and operates at a spoken (given) and unspoken (observed) level.

As with any guiding force or framework, ethical boundaries need to have an inbuilt ability to reinforce themselves in those they apply to. If we think of an ethical framework as being a series of ‘should’ and ‘should nots’ in relation to how an individual who is part of a group behaves, then the most immediate method of reinforcement of the boundaries is shame.

Shame is defined as a deeply disturbing or painful feeling of guilt, incompetence, indecency, or blame-worthiness. Considered a primary emotion, shame creates self-loathing and/or imploding or exploding rage. The four most potent effects of shame are: isolation, loss of internal resources, hopelessness, and the inability to reality check. It is also important to understand that these effects are automatically linked with the experience of shame. Whenever you are feeling these things, it may well be a clue that you are feeling shame. When feeling isolated, hopelessly bad, and de-resourced, it is also easy and common to use these feelings to pile more shame on top of the shame that is already there.

Shame can also operate at two levels: there is shame in oneself (self respect) and shame in front of others (embarrassment). And these two distinctions reflect two levels of ethics: personal or shared. In the majority of cases individuals will join a company/organisation with a given and observed value system where their personal ethics match the shared, and so minimise conflict between the two.

In bringing people along with a change process what we are in effect doing is asking them to alter their personal ethics or to now manage conflict between what they feel is right for them and their personal introjected ethics and a new environment. This is a difficult thing to ask of anyone and so care should be taken that change, when it comes, is in manageable sized pieces that are clearly understood by those going through it and that time and attention is paid to supporting them through the process of adapting their personal ethics to match the new organisational environment.

Potentially, there are multiple sources of shame for every individual within a business. They could be due to conflict between personal or shared ethics, they could be due to full adoption of shared ethics and a felt inability to meet them (i.e. we are all about the customer but most external writing and reporting on us highlight again and again where we fail at this), they could also be inherited from the past.The source doesn’t matter; it’s the effect on people’s behaviour that is important. And that can be seen everywhere.

Very few people are comfortable facing shame or living in an environment where it is prevalent, and so there are defined mechanisms that operate in an unaware state to help manage it. This infrastructure exists to avoid everyday shame at work. And, the more senior the manager, the more protection is offered against shame. The main job of some employees is to help their manager and the manager above them to avoid shame.

Shame shared is often reduced. The demonstration by Management and Leaders all the way from the CEO to Team Leaders that they are happy to admit to not knowing something, making a mistake, not being in control, being surprised or having emotions. And when this happens they are not regarded badly by peers or managers above them (often others feeling reflected shame and experiencing it as their own).

This dropping of the veil between the inner and outer world, adherence to a more adaptive approach, occasions of true contact between Managers and their teams can have drastic effects on the engagement of staff and the overall level of shame experienced in an organisation.

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