Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health

Working Better and Stressing Less

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Targets for organizational counseling: Shame and empathy as burnout antidotes (Part 1 of ?)

"What the heck is organizational counseling?" I often hear when I try to explain my consulting practice to friends. It's not exactly industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology or organizational behavior (O/B) psychology. Organizational counseling is based on the idea of bringing mental health counseling concepts into organizations to improve the wellbeing and performance of groups of people. In this series, I will talk about various targets for organizational counseling.

Let's start with one of the most common questions I hear from clients and prospects: "People keep leaving and I don't know what's wrong. I've heard from exit interviews that people are burned out." 

Most organizations' approaches to employee burnout stink. Executives, listen up: You cannot self-care yourself out of overwork or a bad culture.  It doesn't matter how great your EAP is, how much alternative care you provide or how awesome your gym memberships are. Your great health insurance plan, catered lunches, or fun company events don't matter at all IF your employees are using those things to fight the exhaustion of going to a toxic environment every day. Even if you reduce their hours in that environment, it simply won't be enough to retain them if your culture is crap (unless the economy is really bad and people are desperate for jobs in which case, you might be in luck... I guess?).

So how do you truly fix a toxic culture? The poison in the well of every toxic culture I have ever encountered is shame. What is shame? Let's define it by contrasting it with other related concepts. My friend, Kirk, does an awesome job in this video outlining the concepts of shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. Brene Brown is a well published shame researcher with tons of accessible definitions of the concepts as well. I'll paraphrase both of them. 

Guilt is feeling bad about something we did - our behavior. Guilt is sometimes useful because it helps guide prosocial behaviors. 

Embarrassment is when something happens that makes us feel self-conscious but we attribute the event to something that happens to everyone or something jerky someone did to us. Embarrassment is often funny a bit after it happens. 

Humiliation is when something happens that makes us feel self-conscious but we attribute the event to something bad we did or we are. It's basically embarrassment we blame on ourselves that we don't think happens so many people. Humiliation is often not funny after it happens. 

Shame is much deeper. Shame happens when you believe that you are bad in some way. Shame happens when your internal voice starts saying, "I am lazy. I am dumb. I'm not very good at this. I don't deserve this. AND not only am I many bad things but I deserve for bad things to happen to be because I am bad." Woah. So not only am I bad, but I DESERVE MORE BAD THINGS. 

Let's look at an example. Steve the software developer forgot to check in his code Friday night, went out to a bar with friends, had a few too many beers, and left his phone at the bar. Steve is 24 years old. He finally retrieves his phone on Saturday at 3pm when the bar opens back up and finds a bunch of messages from his boss and senior team members, trying to get his code because of something they were doing overnight on the system. 

Steve might be embarrassed if when he gets the message, his coworkers are leaving light hearted messages saying they would appreciate the code or teasing him a wee bit about having a life on a Friday night. Steve is likely to take this in a light manner due to both the coworkers' approach and his own baggage about responsibility. 

Steve might be humiliated if his coworkers are serious and emphasize that they are held up by Steve's code and that they're disappointed Steve is neither checking his email nor answering his phone. Steve might say to himself, "This is really serious. I just caused the team to miss a deadline. I feel AWFUL about my behavior and I'm doubting my own sense of responsibility."

Steve would probably feel a bit guilty regardless - perhaps both that his coworkers were working late the night before while he was out drinking and that he forgot to check in his code. "Wow I feel really bad that I didn't check in my code. I really want to do better next time!"

Steve might feel shame if either his coworkers are leaving him messages telling him that he's irresponsible for not answering his phone or if Steve had been in environments where his character had been attacked as lazy, incompetent, irresponsible, or dishonest before. 

Why is shame such a big deal in the workplace? Research shows that when someone feels a bit of guilt, they're likely to do better next time. But when they feel shame, they don't even believe they CAN do better next time and so they don't. Shame decreases prosocial behaviors. Shame makes your employees do a WORSE job - not a better job. 

So what could Steve's coworkers have done to leave a message that isn't destructive, regardless of how much his lack of checking in code hurt them? Here is how I might coach them. 

"Hey Steve - we've been trying to get a hold of you for the last three hours. You're probably out with friends. I get it dude... I was 24 once too. I hope you get this message though because the whole team is held up because we're missing your code. We're super stressed out. We're going to miss our deadline tonight. I know that you didn't mean to leave us in this position because I know you care about this project but we are freaking out. Call us when you get this."

You might wonder, "But what if Steve is a really bad employee?" Here's another example:

"Steve... dude. The team is here waiting for your code and we're freaking out. I'm not sure what's going on with you. I know you are a good guy but this is the third time this quarter that this has happened. I'm just super upset. If you get this, can you please call me? Let's schedule some time to discuss this. I just am not sure if this is working out with you on the team. Maybe something is going on that we need to understand. We're open to talking about it or to connecting you with resources to help if it's too private for work. We want to understand what's happening so we can keep you on this team.."

The key to both examples is that the team members have learned to state their needs, their concerns, and their desires, without ascribing deep personal flaws to Steve. These examples show the team members targeting Steve's behavior and not his character in communication. 

The other key component to the messages is EMPATHY. Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else's shoes in order to understand them better. In both cases, whether Steve's forgetfulness is a funny inconvenience or a deep repeating problem, the caller tried to imagine what's going on for Steve and expressed interest in Steve's experiences and perspective. Even if Steve gets fired on Monday, he's likely to believe it's for his actions and not for his character. Empathy is key to reducing shame in the workplace and beyond. 

Both shame awareness and empathy are learnable skills. They bond teams, increase employee satisfaction, help organizations conquer bumps in the road more effectively, and reduce toxicity in work environments. So if these are learnable skills, why aren't more companies teaching them? I think it's because they don't understand how shame and empathy work to create culture. 

So if you're reading this blog because you're puzzled about why you keep losing folks or why you've been told your culture isn't great, shame and empathy are a great place to start exploring. 

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Katie PlayfairComment