I have written many posts on building relationships with your team, on vulnerability and trust. And this may give the impression that my approach to management is all warm and fuzzy and based on constant encouragement. And this is mostly true. But there are some situations when we need to be tougher and address issues in a manner that will stop them from repeating. Cases when we need to manage underperformance, reoccurring mistakes, process and policy breaches, or undesired behaviors which affect the work and the team. In short, failures.
And though it is not the sexiest of admissions – sometimes the stick is more effective than the carrot. After all, as leaders, we need to adopt different approaches and wear different masks to ensure we achieve the business results and objectives set for us. Or as Al Capone puts it:
“You can go a long way with a smile. You can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun.”
― Al Capone
So what do we do when a failure or a mistake occurs and we need to manage underperformance.
That’s right. We identify the root cause, correct the mistake, manage the consequences, and ensure it does not happen again. And that last part is the tricky one when you are a manager. You can address some process gaps and enhance the technology, but unless your team member acknowledges that they have failed and is willing not to do it again, you are likely to run into the same issue repeatedly.
Some individuals do not connect emotionally with their job and just do the work and get their paycheck without caring much for the results (honestly, I don’t know how to manage them, and they don’t last long on my teams). But, for the rest of us, there is a mediating element between failure and the desire never to repeat it again.
And that is emotion.
The most common emotions that are associated with failure are shame and guilt. And while probably very few managers start off the day with “So today I will shame my team into meeting that deadline,” even without realizing it, we all employ those emotions in our management toolkit when managing underperformance and failure.
What’s The Difference Between Shame and Guilt?
Shame and guilt are very similar and often coincide, so it can be challenging to distinguish between the two even when we experience them ourselves, let alone in others. They are both self-reflective emotions that cause us to re-evaluate ourselves as a result of failure. And neither of them feels good, so we are inclined to take action to avoid them. They are part of our heritage as social beings and have evolved as mechanisms for us to conform to social norms and rules. As such, they are both inherent to the workplace, which provides ample opportunities to fail as well as multiple, often complex social interactions.
But the similarities end there. Guilt and shame differ significantly in the way they are triggered, how they play out internally and the response actions they provoke.
Shame – the ego-buster
Shame tends to be more pervasive, and it attacks our whole sense of self. It is elicited by a perceived gap we experience between the person we want to be and the person we think we are. Just remember how you felt when you walked into school with that home-knit sweater your mum made you wear at sixth grade, and you will see what I mean. Shame may make you see yourself as worthless and inadequate.
Thus, shame can be very debilitating. It often provokes us to employ avoidance behaviors, to hide mistakes or lash out when trying to displace the feeling of inadequacy. In addition, shame is associated with a sense of powerlessness – “I cannot correct my behavior because this is who I am.”
Shame is also often thought of as being more related to public exposure of our transgression. With our failure being seen whether in reality or only in our mind’s eye (I still cringe when I think of that time the band of my underwear snapped and it nearly slipped off while I was walking by a group of construction workers two years ago, even though no one saw).
Yet, shame can also have positive effects by pushing us to conform to the rules and procedures and to work harder to avoid mistakes.
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Guilt and carrying the world on your shoulders
Guilt, on the other hand, is focused on the behavior rather than the self. We feel guilty when a certain thing we have done has breached the norms or values or has harmed another person or the organization. It is also not so ego-centered as shame and takes into account the other person’s perspective. It is associated with empathy and can thus be triggered internally without the need for external intervention.
When experiencing guilt, we retain our power and control. We feel responsible for our wrongful behavior, and thus it is easier to believe we can correct it and take reparative actions. At the workplace, guilt-proneness has been associated with stronger organizational citizenship behavior, higher performance and greater productivity.
Experiencing guilt or shame is very much dependent on the personality. Some people are more prone to feeling ashamed when failing, while others would be more inclined to feel guilty. But many situational aspects can also influence which emotion will prevail. And here come the implications to our approaches and how we manage failure and underperformance in our teams.
Managing Underperformance By Shame
As mentioned before, shame has a positive influence on conforming to rules and procedures. The desire to avoid shame can also increase our attention towards repeating mistakes and following clearly articulated process steps. So how does shame work for managing underperformance?
Shame by design
Management by shame is widely used in the contact center industry, or as you can see here, in some factories. The methods usually applied are some form of stack ranking where the individual results of each team member are ranked from highest to lowest. The expectation is that this would prompt the employees with the lowest scores to work harder to move up the ladder.
Indeed, this has proven to be effective in a lot of settings. However, we should take a few things into account before implementing such a technique.
This approach can work only with jobs that have clear-cut processes and procedures and measurable, very well-defined expected results. As discussed, shame provokes avoidance behaviors. This has a positive effect in the sense that we avoid making the same mistake twice, and we will follow the process steps ever more carefully after we have failed once. The flip side to that, though, is that we will also avoid taking on a new, more difficult task or show initiative so as not to risk being unsuccessful and feeling inadequate again.
And then, there is also the social aspect of shame. We don’t want others to see how incompetent we are again, so if the task that we need to do requires cooperation with others, we are much more likely to withdraw or show resistance and aggression. So using stack ranking or shame as a tool to improve performance would work mainly in situations where the activity is individual and not shared.
Apart from such deliberately designed techniques, many leaders use shame to manage the underperformance within their teams without even realizing or acknowledging it. The most obvious example is publicly discussing someone’s mistakes. But we don’t even have to berate someone in front of others to shame them. Comments like: “I expected more from you,” “We have discussed this a hundred times,” “You never…” or “You always…” even if they are done in private, can have a profoundly shaming effect. So can any actions or statements aiming to highlight how much more knowledgeable or capable you are than your employee.
Such approaches can still have the positive effects described earlier and have use in performance management. But apart from choosing the appropriate settings to exercise them, we have to be careful not to cross a line and crush the person in front of us. I will never forget the words of a former colleague of mine who was describing the terrible relationship with his boss: “When I fail to achieve the desired result, he not only makes me feel that I am a terrible professional but a totally worthless human being.” Needless to say, such behavior was detrimental to the communication and trust between them. But not only that, over time, I gradually observed my colleague become less and less confident and more and more disengaged, and in the end, he was just a shell of his former self.
As you have probably already guessed, I am not a big fan of managing by shame. But it is essential to remind ourselves that this is the go-to reaction to failure for some individual. Shame-proneness has also been theorized to have a cultural aspect with some cultures in which shame is a more prevalent social regulator than guilt and thus a better management tool. Traditionally Western cultures are considered more guilt-prone and Eastern cultures more shame-prone. And even though this is a wild generalization, it might be good to keep it at the back of our minds, especially if we manage global teams.
Shame is a very devastating emotion for me personally (remember that cringe I told you about. I have a lot more where that came from. Some dating over 30 years back), and I still find it difficult to manage by shame. But I also realize that I have to be flexible in my methods and adapt to the individuals I work with (with varying success), so we can achieve our team goals.
Managing Underperformance By Guilt
So, I manage by guilt. It is definitely not something I planned or even realized until recently.
But I have been feeling quite unneeded lately. My teams seem to have become entirely self-sufficient. After I provide an initial direction, they self-regulate and control their work. They discover mistakes, correct them and adjust their process. I hardly even get any escalations anymore. And when I do, there is usually a solution already in place, and it comes with them apologizing that my time is wasted with responding to the escalation. Quite boring, to be honest. But also very, very cool.
The feeling of guilt seemed to be one of the main moderators and regulators of the teams’ practices. And I started thinking about what it is that makes my teams take full ownership of their work and their behavior and feel guilt and self-correct if they do not deliver. And here is where the warm and fuzzy stuff popped up again.
Guilt is, above all, a “moral” emotion. It is triggered when we feel we have breached certain norms or have gone against our values. And this is the key – “our” values. To feel guilty that we have failed in a task or the achievement of a particular goal, we should have internalized the team/organizational values as our own. From a management perspective, our cue here is to establish and instill values that align with our business objectives and are acceptable for the whole team.
Trust between a manager and an employee is crucial in all sorts of ways. However, two particular aspects are related to the feeling of guilt. On the one hand, the employee should trust that the manager will not belittle them or intentionally harm them when they feel vulnerable. On the other, the trust extended to them makes them more eager to justify it and more prone to guilt if they breach it.
A significant distinction between guilt and shame is that the guilt focuses on the behavior and the shame on the overall personality. Therefore, the feedback that we provide employees needs to specific to the behavior.
Feeling responsibility and ownership of your work requires a certain level of independence. For example, suppose you are required to repeat exactly process steps designed by someone else. In that case, it is less likely that you will feel the necessary level of accountability to feel guilt and an internal need to repair the harm you have done with your mistake or process breach.
And, last but not least – employees are less likely to feel shame and more likely to feel guilt if they do not perceive you as very much superior to them. If they know you are flawed, it is easier for them to accept their own mistake without being crushed by either shame or guilt.
Because guilt can be debilitating as well if taken to an extreme. It can lead to stress and anxiety, and eventually burnout. That’s why I try to remind my employees regularly that no one will die if they don’t meet that deadline or make a mistake. Luckily, in my line of business, this is true.
Now, what do we say as a conclusion – emotions are always there when you manage failure or underperformance at work. And we should not only acknowledge their presence (ignoring them is never a good idea as they tend to come back and bite you) but can use them as tools to correct behavior and achieve better results. If we tread lightly.