I am 11 years old. Miss Robinson, my all-time favourite teacher is talking. I am in class 3A, Highlands Primary School, Harare, Zimbabwe. I love reading, so when Miss Robinson asks a question about the book we are studying as a class, my hand shoots into the air. “Yes Mark, go ahead.” Joy and anticipation as I stand up to gain the accolades of my peers and the approval of the teacher whose approval matters more than anything to me. As I open my mouth to speak I notice gasps, sniggers, laughter from my classmates. I look down. I am stark naked. Standing exposed in all my prepubescent glory. I drown in a sea of shame.

Now thankfully this never actually happened to me, but the memory of the nightmare which woke me in state of near hysteria 30 years ago is etched into my consciousness. Shame is one of the most unpleasant of all human experiences. We are all familiar with it and we all try hard to avoid it. Mostly this is a good thing to do. Shame avoidance helps us keep our clothes on (at least in public), it is essential for much of our social interaction and communal life. So what’s the problem?

Shame is a good servant but a lousy master. Without the risk of shame, we will never try anything new or different and we will never learn anything new. To innovate, to try something new, entails the real possibility that we might fail. For most of us, failure brings with it a healthy dose of shame. Failure strips away our covering of competence, it kicks away our sense of being in control. So much better to always do what we always done than risk the shame of failure. Similarly, to learn something new means having our ‘not knowing’ exposed. If I can’t tolerate the shame of not-knowing, of being ignorant, or limited in my understanding, then I’ll never be able to learn. 

So what do we do? If we want to grow as people, if we want to lead innovative, learning organisations, then we have to keep shame in its proper place. Fear of it cannot control us. We must realise that while it is painful, it is not fatal. We must give ourselves, and the people we lead, permission to fail and to not-know, to acknowledge that this is painful because it is shameful, but to embrace this as the price we must pay for personal and organisational growth. 

Are you controlled by your fear of shame? Do you use the threat of shame to control those around you, those over whom you have influence? What do you need to do to be set free, and to set others free, from a controlling fear of shame?

What do you think?