Have you ever felt guilty about something you did, even though you were never caught? Have you ever been ashamed of yourself, even though others might not know how you secretly feel? Guilt and shame are human emotions that everyone feels at one time or another. For some, these powerful emotions become so familiar that they become character traits, whether the stereotypical Catholic or Jewish bad boy who feels guilt every time he thinks of nuns or mothers, or the hyper-sexual bad girl who feels shamed for behaving like her brother—whose own hyper-sexuality is a marker of his virility.
Although we often use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, those who study these emotions are careful to distinguish them. Guilt is an emotion we feel about a specific behavior, while shame is an emotion we feel about who we are. Shame is a corrosive, destructive emotion that leads us onto the path of self-loathing where, in defense of ourselves and in a desperate struggle to break free of our painful feelings about our self worth, we justify our actions—and our identities—as caused by something or someone else. According to psychologist June Tangney, the more shamed we are, the greater our anger and the less we are able to feel empathy—because we so want to stop the painful feelings of shame that we realign our perceptions of the world so that we are not ashamed. It’s not our fault. We aren’t bad people. Everyone does it. We had no choice. Others made us do it. The process is called cognitive dissonance—our ability to distance ourselves from our pain by altering the way we perceive the people and events surrounding it.
In contrast, guilt is an emotion that is more closely correlated with empathy. When we feel guilty about something, we do feel bad, but we feel bad about a specific event in which we behaved in a way we know is contrary to our values. We are more likely to understand how others perceive our actions, and we are more willing to cooperate with others, become self-reflexive, and take corrective action to alter the behavior.
Understanding the distinctions between these two emotions can go far in helping us understand and cope with workplace bullying and mobbing. To do so, consider the three distinct roles that shame plays in bullying and mobbing. Shaming plays a critical role in controlling the behavior of everyone involved.
For the target, being shamed is a humiliating experience as they are systematically told and reminded that their worth as a human is not valued. As the target is shamed, they withdraw into themselves, begin to feel inherently flawed and worthless, and in an ironic twist of the knife, metaphorically join the aggressors through self-loathing. Just as the aggressors make it clear they are unwanted and not valued, the target of bullying or mobbing feels, on some level, that they must be what they are viewed as. As the bullying behavior turns to mobbing, more and more people join in the shaming, and the sheer number of people who turn against them reinforces the sense that if “everyone” feels that way, then there must be something to it.
And that feeling just infuriates the target who has been shamed. They may internalize the shame and self-loathing, but on a conscious level, they know it is wrong, that it is undeserved, and that it is causing them excruciating pain—and threatening their livelihood. Yet the very reason they are shamed—to make them feel bad about themselves, to drive them away, to push them to the edge and make them snap—thus proving how deserving they are of the abuse—is exactly what feeds the anger. The target who has been shamed will feel escalating anger that may well reinforce the aggressors’ perceptions that they’re crazy, if not threatening and dangerous, but will actually make them somewhat crazy, threatening and dangerous—which is hardly adaptive behavior for those who want to live and work safely and sanely. In other words, the target who is shamed is unlikely to empathize with their aggressors, is more likely to become emotionally unstable and increasingly angry, and is more likely to internalize the sense of self-worth to such an extent they may become self destructive—through bad decision-making, increased use of drugs and alcohol, and in prolonged cases, sometimes driven to suicide—if not homicide. Shaming targets is a no-win situation for anyone who seeks healthy relationships and humane behavior.
A second way in which shaming operates is in the manner in which it escalates bullying into mobbing. In my new ebook, Mobbed! A Survival Guide to Adult Bullying and Mobbing, I discuss how collective bullying, also known as mobbing, is triggered and enflamed. One of the key ways in which an abusive manager can persuade otherwise kind and decent people to help eliminate a worker, is by encouraging the “small betrayal.” A small betrayal is easy to provoke; all a manager needs to do is tell a target’s coworker that they understand how stressful the target’s problems have been; how they do not have to worry about anything happening to them, they’ll be fine, but the target has never been happy and it’s in their best interest to leave. That’s about all they need to say.
The coworker will likely agree—yes, it is a pain to listen to their coworker complain about how they’re being treated. They do sometimes wish they would just leave and find another job. And once they openly agree with the manager who is abusing their fellow coworker—generally followed by some perk or promise from the manager that has them leaving the office happy (while their coworker is miserable, yet again . . .)—the closer they are to the targeted worker, the more they’ll feel the pangs of shame.
And feeling those pangs, they will walk down the hall and back to their own office thinking about how nice the manager was to them to give them that perk, that promise, or that reassurance they’d be safe and no one would bully them. And the more they think about how nice things are going for themselves, the faster cognitive dissonance will kick in—they’ll start seeing their friend and coworker as bringing the problem on themselves, “always” being miserable, “never” happy, and on and on—until by the end of the day, they will feel no shame at all for their small betrayal. At that point, they will be primed for the bigger betrayals that are sure to come. Shaming works to turn bystanders into perpetrators by encouraging small betrayals, thus conditioning them for larger ones as they transform their own shame into the conviction that it’s not their fault—the targeted worker deserves their abusive treatment. The more we are convinced that our aggression is deserved, the less we will restrain it, and the more we will persuade ourselves that it isn’t shameful, it’s the opposite. It’s moral.
Finally, a third way in which shaming works to intensify workplace aggression and undermine any potential for empathy and cooperation, is through the increasingly popular tactic of bully shaming. Bully shaming is the public ridicule of a worker as a “bully,” encouraging them to not only get fired, but to be driven from their careers if not any opportunity for employment. Facebook pages devoted to bully shaming print names and photos of the people they accuse of bullying behaviors, focusing on individuals over group aggression, and delighting in the demonizing of people who for most commenters, are complete strangers. To be accused of bullying in this day and age is to be found guilty—and worthy of public ridicule, banishment from employment, and humane treatment.
What’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong is this—first, public accusation in the internet age can destroy anyone’s reputation and career without the opportunity for fairness, reason, or objective investigation. Second, even if the person so accused has acted badly, if not abhorrently, by publicly shaming them, they are likely to become more defensive of their behaviors, less empathetic of the concerns of others who accuse them, less willing to cooperate and change their behaviors, and far more angry—and potentially aggressive—the more they are shamed. In other words, if the person is unfairly accused of bullying behaviors, they are given no opportunity to defend themselves, while if they have acted badly, chances are shaming will lead them to act even more badly.
If the goal of opposing workplace bullying is indeed to promote more humane workplace environments, decrease workplace aggression, and reduce the potential for workplace violence, shaming targets or shaming bullies is counterproductive. It may be tempting to shame someone who has hurt or disturbed us, it may even bring perverse delight in watching their public downfall. But peace-building in the workplace requires each of us to develop empathy for others. Shaming our coworkers, no matter how badly they’ve behaved or what mistakes they’ve made, by pointing fingers and telling the whole world that they are bad people and deserving of bad treatment, is no way to build healthy workplaces or communities. By focusing on the bad behavior, rather than the bad person, we are far more likely to motivate our coworkers to change their behaviors, become cooperative, and empathize with our own concerns. The secret to the shame game is that no matter how it’s played, it can’t be won, except by those who choose not to play it.