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Ways To Heal Employees Caught In The Shame Blame Game

Posted by Insightlink on 11/29/16

As humans when someone accuses, blames or shames us most of us react in one of six ways. We will either withdraw, become defensive, lash out in a counter attack, beat ourselves up internally, be a people-pleaser in order to counter the inner feelings of never being good enough or, we look for a solution to the problem that results in positive change (which we all recognize is the healthiest response but not the easiest to do).

At work employees respond to blame and shame, criticism, judgment or threats by withdrawing which ends up translating into a lack of engagement, low morale and motivation.
We all know people who react defensively or try to justify their actions; they come across as whining, argumentative, and sometimes hostile, none of which anyone enjoys. Unfortunately, the response could also be a counter attack, which would sound like a verbal attack…the situation could get ugly and extremely uncomfortable. The ripple effect of all this negative energy affects co-workers (consciously and subconsciously) causing apathy and bad feelings to flow. This is what drives engagement levels down and costs people and organizations their emotional and financial health.

Blame and shame don’t work for anyone but it takes knowledge and understanding and leadership to get a grip on the problem and turn it around.

For example, do you ever feel like you are walking on eggshells at work?

According to shame researcher Brene Brown that is what it feels like when someone you work with avoids dealing with problems. Instead of dealing with the feeling it gets pushed way, way down and then some little innocuous event triggers it and out of nowhere you have a raging bull on your hands. The consequences of holding it in can also impact our physical selves. When we keep swallowing the pain our bodies reach a point where they can’t do it anymore. Brown says ‘the body keeps score and it always wins’ so the outcomes translate into not being able to sleep at night, anxiety, and depression which are absolutely going to impact an employee’s productivity at work. Brown explains what she means in this short video interview with Oprah Winfrey. 

The Goal:

  1. Focus on the solution and how you can help the employee articulate how they will reach the solution rather than pointing out the problem.
  2. If leaders want this blame shame game to end they have to be driven to finding a positive solution that focuses on getting commitment over compliance. What this means is helping the employee to develop a solution without the need to blame or shame.
  3. Do not minimize, ignore or refute feelings of hurt, betrayal or humiliation. It is important to let everyone ‘save face’ so that everyone can walk away with a sense of dignity that allows them to engage in a new way of interacting.

Positive Solutions:

Instead of accusing, blaming or shaming, consider redirecting toward a solution using some of these approaches by asking:

  1. How can we do this differently?
  2. This is what I need from you. How can I help you achieve this?
  3. Instead of defending another person – just listen.
  4. When you do not agree with their perspective – comment on how they must feel without agreeing with why they feel that way. (e.g. “Everybody hates me.” – It must be awful to feel that way.)
  5. What would you like to do about that?
  6. How can we do that in a way that is healthy for you?
  7. How can we change that to work better for you?
  8. What is a solution that you think would make this better for everyone?
  9. What would be helpful? I hear your frustration. I want to help you move forward to a work situation that is at the very least not negative. What would that take?
  10. Follow up with, and what else?
  11. Instead of shutting the employee down or refuting their accusation ask ‘What can we do to make this right going forward.”

When we help someone succeed at work, we are also helping others to see them as a successful contributor. And when we treat people as if they are successful and a valuable member of the team, others are much more likely to follow our lead. As Mary Kay Ash said, 'the speed of the leader is the speed of the gang'. If you speak respectfully about all people, your team might understand this to be the expectation for their behavior as well.

To recap:

  1. Blame and shame usually causes us to react emotionally
  2. Redirect blaming or shaming talk (your own and others) toward solutions
  3. Where possible neither agree nor disagree – just redirect
  4. Resist minimizing or refuting feelings
  5. Avoid he said/she said traps
  6. Respect privacy, but address the workplace issues

To what extent blame and shame are weaving havoc in your workplace you can never know for sure. If you know this is a problem and are sincerely motivated to deal with it then we urge you to consider an employee survey. Only when you ask employees confidentially what their pain points are can you begin to fully understand your workplace and put an action plan in place that addresses the problems.
You may not have heard of us but Insightlink is an employee research company that has been quietly and successfully helping organizations for almost 20 years. Write us for more information at, call Lynn Gore our Engagement Specialist at 866-802-8095 ext 705 or visit our website for more information.

Source: Mary Ann Baynton. Resolving Workplace Issues, 2011.

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