Shame-based organizations: When workplaces resemble dysfunctional families

Please excuse the disembodied hands!

Please excuse the disembodied hands!

What can shame-based family rule systems teach us about less-than-wonderful workplaces?

At the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, Dr. Connie Dawson, author of the forthcoming book, Life Beyond Shame: Rewriting the Rules, facilitated a discussion group on shame-based rules for family systems. Here are the rules drawn from her poster board pictured above:

  • “Do and be right” (“Do it my way”)
  • “Blame shifted elsewhere”
  • “Do not acknowledge feelings”
  • “Keep secrets”
  • “Don’t expect accountability”
  • “Control to get what you need” (“Manipulate to ensure own survival”)
  • “None of this is happening” (“Deny reality”)

If you’ve ever experienced a workplace built on a punitive, negative culture, then these rules may resonate strongly!

Dr. Brené Brown has a lot to say about shame-based organizational cultures in this Fast Company excerpt from her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead  (2012). In fact, she examines shaming behaviors at work in the context of workplace bullying, citing the work of the Workplace Bullying Institute. She doesn’t pull any punches in discussing how shame can be used by management:

When we see shame being used as a management tool (again, that means bullying, criticism in front of colleagues, public reprimands, or reward systems that intentionally belittle people), we need to take direct action because it means that we’ve got an infestation on our hands. And we need to remember that this doesn’t just happen overnight. Equally important to keep in mind is that shame is like the other “sh” word. Like shit, shame rolls downhill. If employees are constantly having to navigate shame, you can bet that they’re passing it on to their customers, students, and families.

While specific acts of bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work can be attributed to individuals, these behaviors are much less likely to flourish without permission — explicit or implicit — from the host organization. It’s why, among other things, that in order to understand workplace mistreatment, we need to keep one eye on the institutions and human systems that enable it.


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10 responses

  1. The book “The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss, and Perpetuate Sick Organizations,” by Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel has MUCH to offer to the discussion re: dysfunctional behaviors in organizations. It was published 25 years ago.

  2. Yep all sounds like where I work. I went from working for a charity to working for a University and it has been painfully eye opening. I’m used to people having empathy and compassion or at least common courtesy, now I’m surrounded by bullies and psychopaths. The disregard for people where I work is astounding- there is a real culture of fear because of it.
    The epidemic of workplace bullying is terrifying. He who fights with monsters…

    • And many family systems learn their shaming practices from religious institutions. It’s a technique that will continue to be employed and adopted as long as it “works” for those who practice it.

  3. This post really made a lot of sense, David. What I find particularly ironic is that I can think of more than one organization that refers to its participants as “the [name of organization] family” but which operates in exactly the way that is described on that poster board. If anything, the concept of”family” is implicitly used in these organizations to discourage or silence dissent – as in, you are not a good member of the family if you criticize it.

  4. Thank you for including the quote about “reward systems that intentionally belittle employees.”
    I know of such a “reward system” that is based on the classist principle that most employees only
    do the basics of what the job requires (with no evidentiary support for such an assertion) and requires that a certain number of employees be rated as mediocre (most usually, permanently)
    in line with this unsubstantiated assertion (while the supervisors of these employees are rated “exceptional”) — all of which we owe to Karl Rove and his cohorts, who after all wanted to totally dismantle the civil service system. This “reward system” is still in place in at least one federal agency. In direct exchange for this, the managers had their salary caps lifted — so that over the course of their remaining tenure and retirement some stood to earn easily tens of thousands more dollars. You can imagine what effect this had on the morale of at least one agency — lowest in 70 years; the FCMS was brought in and the union made a company-union (including by the constructive discharge of the union grievance person because he vigilantly processed grievances)
    Kudos for discussing workplace abuse from a systemic perspective. Not necessarily, “Sex, Lies and Videotapes,” although perhaps “Lies, Bribery, and Disempowerment.”

  5. Thanks for all the work you do. We have already linked your page to our site at where we are trying to discuss ideas for recovery. If you don’t see it, it is under a descriptive name so readers know what it is on our Quick Links.

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