Why Shaming Should Be Avoided

Is shaming an effective strategy? Does it assist us in our efforts to shape or influence the way others think and act? Many would answer in the affirmative and point to their own experience as parents, coaches, business managers or owners, etc. as proof of its efficacy. I discussed this topic recently with a seasoned corporate trainer who sincerely believes in its usefulness as a method of keeping employees in line. Not just one method among others, mind you, but the best and only truly effective one.

The conversation quickly segued into the wider topic of whether this authoritarian business practice – specifically its purported “usefulness” – carries over into the realm of political discourse. “Don’t reason in good faith with those who disagree with you,” the trainer said with a smug sense of self-righteousness, “but humiliate them into submission.” This combative approach is something those of us who frequent social media these days – almost all of us – are all too familiar with. And rather than engaging others whom we may disagree with openly and honestly, we keep quiet in order to avoid feelings of guilt or shame.

In what follows I will attempt to lay out some basic reasons for taking the exact opposite view of my interlocutor.

To put it as simply as possible, people subjected to shaming will conform outwardly in order to avoid public humiliation, but they will also harbor deep grudges against you – which they’ll obviously hide until they feel it’s safe to come out in the open – for embarrassing them. That’s a horrible way to cultivate employee morale in the workplace or good will among fellow citizens in the public square (or on social media!). If your employees feel like their superiors are condescending jerks then the overall level of commitment/job satisfaction within the company drops, and you’re left with high rates of turnover, absenteeism, etc.

That’s the stereotype of the “corporate mentality”: your employees are easily replaceable anonymous names on the payroll (who rather than adding value merely eat into your profits) who are lazy, sneaky, shortsighted, etc. and who need to be kept in a constant state of fear. There’s some truth to this within that specific corporate context. I would however be cautious in translating that model/mindset to other spheres of life, especially those which do not subordinate human beings to an impersonal “system” which relates to them in strictly instrumental terms.

In my experience as a manager, however, I’ve found that it’s almost always a better strategy – which means more effective and lasting – to treat your employees like adults rather than children. “Hey you lazy idiot I’m going to fire you if you don’t pull your head out of your ass!” is translated to, “This is what the job requires and if it’s something you can’t do consistently then you should seek employment elsewhere.”

I’ve disciplined/counseled many a worker in those (calm) terms and have gotten pretty good results; and by “good results” I include parting ways as amicably as possible when differences are irresolvable. More often, though, the result is a significantly improved attitude and level of performance. So there are both ethical and pragmatic reasons for avoiding shaming – the two are in fact deeply connected.

My main point, to re-emphasize, is to reject the notion that being an asshole is the best way to convince others of the justice or rightness of your position. They’ll fake it out of fear – as noted there’s some truth to that – but the change will be superficial, insincere, and precarious. I’d also add that being a “nice guy” does not necessarily preclude toughness when warranted, so that’s a false dilemma. One can be a genuinely compassionate human being while not being a pushover. Incidentally, that’s the sort of leadership that people generally admire and want to be around.

Now within the context of political debate shaming is even less effective than it is in the business world; it rarely if ever leads to genuine change in the other’s position. What does work every so often, however, are things like acknowledging the partial legitimacy of their perspective, admitting the limitations of our own, suggesting that their views have been manipulated by people who don’t share their noble intentions, etc. You try to establish some common ground and then work from there.

That attempt to foster good will by recognizing the “humanity” or basic decency of our perceived adversaries can make them much more receptive to our positions than they’d otherwise be. If you want to stir up the “base” who already think like you then sure, go ahead and shame those who are different. And sadly, it can make us feel good to put others down and cause them pain. On the other hand, if you want to compel those who may be indecisive, or who may be on the other side of an issue, then treating them with dignity and respect will likely work better. Much better in fact. It’s a rare person who doesn’t get defensive and totally closed off when attacked personally.

This principle of charity does admittedly have certain limitations. There are some evil people out there who don’t deserve our respect, of course, and these should be shamed for their heartless beliefs and/or actions. But our main concern should be with average people who don’t fall into this simple category, and who may just be well-meaning but misinformed or misguided. Decent people can hold irrational and/or even unethical views, but getting them to recognize that requires a bit of subtlety. More subtlety at least than bludgeoning them with insults directed at their intelligence, their socioeconomic background, their race or ethnicity, their religion, etc. Getting people (including ourselves!) to see the truth is, or can be, incredibly difficult.

As Nietzsche noted, even the strongest, most thoughtful, and most self-aware among us are prone to self-deception. This realization ideally leads to a higher level of humility, and this in turn serves as the foundation for the sort of moral and intellectual charity that’s sorely lacking – and so desperately needed – in our increasingly polarized world.

Just my thoughts. We can all get back to the productive exchange of insults now.

One Comment

  1. I agree with all that you’ve said about shaming. It simply doesn’t work for the average person. And is counter-productive. As regards truth, what we have is always a belief. As there are an infinite number of ways things can be categorised. We can only persuade others to see things our way. But to think that we are leading them to the truth is in itself, a form of self-deception.

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