Ever have someone melt down right in front of you for no apparent reason? Or, has someone dug in unrealistically? What about another person feeding the gossip mill in a rather vicious manner working to get people to side with him? On the flip side, there’s the person who shrugs her shoulders blind to the destruction caused by her last decision. These individuals may all have something in common – shame. Shame as used here refers to situations where a lack of self-esteem has been brought to the surface and the person tries behavior that is meant to provide some form of self-protection.
To learn a bit more about it the etymology of shame may help. At the core it means, “to cover.” So, when someone takes on an apparently irrational behavior it may be an unconscious attempt to protect, to cover the sense of being defective. The irrational part puts it in the realm of a coping mechanism, which is an unhealthy response learned or created to try and deal with a problem, real or perceived. The word “irrational” is a tip that the current events have triggered something from the past about which the person experiences an irrationally low sense of self, a sense of shame.
For example, you might be working with an extremely good engineer who gets angry and belligerent when asked to speak in a formal setting with clients. He might say he has plenty of work to do and insists sales should be pulling their weight and earn their commissions instead of relying on the people who do the work and have to reach billable hour goals to also have to sell the project. No matter how much you talk with the engineer, saying how good his work is, this is a chance to shine, etc., it all seems to go nowhere.
In some consulting situations like this I’ve had to dig deeper (working with a therapist) to find out a grade school teacher in front of the class ridiculed the individual. No other adult was sensitive to or helped this future engineer work through the situation in a healthy way. He was left thinking it was his fault and that he was (and still is) defective. Consequently, he covered the problem by avoiding formal speaking situations and, when needed, through belligerence. For what it is worth, I run into shame-based problems with some regularity. They typically are a main contributor to the difficulties the organization is experiencing. You know what I am talking about, the person who limits their career or gets fired over something they just can’t get beyond.
So what can you do in such a situation? First, offer compassion, acceptance, and empathy. Be honest and state the problem as you see it and the challenge the individual faces. It is being a friend and, in the words of Carl Jung, “If everyone had good friends there’d be no need for therapists.” Keep in mind you aren’t their mother so limits are required. When that limit is reached it is time to escalate, which can be very uncomfortable when a friend is involved. It is the best thing to do. Without honesty in the situation a cost is incurred which has price tags associated with it, ranging from money to stress. It might be good for an outsider to come in and look at the situation and be the “bad guy” who pushes for needed changes.
In any case, simply riding over it and trying to pretend the irrational behavior can be absorbed or ignored will just drive everyone else crazy and provide no help for the person feeling the shame. On the positive side, as difficult as the situation is, when genuine friendship is extended and a healthy confrontation occurs, if the person with the difficulties really wants to do better, he is eventually appreciative. The situation can get better and profitability has a better shot at going up.
—Through his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Twitter at @garymonti