• Managing people

From Shame to Creativity

How negative workplace shame can be channelled into positive creativity


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We all hate to fail, and the resulting shame, according to Carl Jung, is a “soul-eating emotion.” In a workplace context shame comes from making mistakes. Yet making mistakes is inevitable, particularly when trying to learn or experiment with new ideas, and without new ideas, learning and innovation businesses stagnate. So as Blaise Pascal says “The only shame is to have none.”

New research co-authored by Andreas Richter, University Lecturer in Organizational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School, takes on board the inevitability of workplace shame and shows it can be channelled into creativity if handled skilfully and sensitively by managers and work colleagues.

“People naturally want to overcome their workplace shame by demonstrating their value to the organization, and one way of doing this is to show creativity,” says Richter. “The study finds that managers can facilitate this by providing an appropriate environment.”

The key finding of this research is that shame, an unwanted negative emotion that is commonly felt at work, can spur employee creativity (if only incremental rather than radical creativity). This is partially triggered by the motivation of ashamed employees to restore their positive self-image. The researchers do not advocate that managers shame their employees. Rather, as shame occurs unavoidably and on a regular basis, it is important that managers adopt efficient strategies to address the shame-creativity relationship.

The researchers ask, by way of example, “Suppose that your boss tells you in front of your colleagues that you made a serious mistake in a report you just prepared, and you feel terribly ashamed. Would you withdraw from the situation and try to make yourself ‘invisible’, wishing the working day would end so that you can go back home? Or would you engage in developing a novel and more useful report to correct your mistake and recover your standing within your team?”

As the desire to have a positive self-image is a powerful motivator and self-image is threatened when individuals experience shame, some individuals might as result of their motivation to restore their self-image increase their creativity. Others will prefer to become invisible. So the influence of colleagues and managers can be instrumental in the choice to engage in creative activity (e.g. re-write the report).

Managers and employees should be aware that even seemingly destructive negative emotions bear creative potential. Although the occurrence of shame may be somewhat uncontrollable, its management is not, managers and employees can turn seemingly negative energy into novel and useful ideas by taking an active role in managing these emotional dynamics for enhanced creativity.

It is well established that creativity is essential for business success and sustainability and that creating team environments that encourage creativity is a core leadership responsibility. The findings of this research, suggest that as a part of their drive to promote creativity, leaders should additionally invest in coaching or training employees with regard to the regulation of shame. Such interventions may include emotional awareness training and focus on the role of suppression of certain emotional displays in order to facilitate social relationships within teams. Work colleagues can also help restore the shamed colleague’s confidence by showing receptiveness to new ways of doing things even if they are risky.

Sensitive handling of the shame-creativity dynamic shows that the organization accepts that in all creative endeavours there is both the potential for reward and the risk of failure. And managers should know that the occasional mistake is an occupational hazard of taking risks and any understandable accompanying shame can be redirected to more creativity.

Access the original research paper: Turning shame into creativity: The importance of exposure to creative team environments, Helena V. González-Gómeza, Andreas W. Richter, 2015.

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