I’m So Embarrassed!

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By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve kicked myself repeatedly over some embarrassing moments in my life that have not only caused my face to turn beet red, it also made me feel the emotions of guilt and shame.  I’m not going to tell you about them here because that would lead to more embarrassment, guilt and shame.  While everybody has “stuff” that has happened in the past, the key is not to get stuck in the past beating yourself up about it.  It’s time to MOVE ON!


Human survival is all about social and moral norms.  The same can be said about organizations.  An organization’s culture is an accumulation of norms created by members of the organization.  When a norm is violated, the emotions of shame, guilt and embarrassment emerge, and that’s a good thing.  Why?  Embarrassment and shame lead to an internal review of what led to the behavior that caused these feelings.  These emotions help you figure out what behavioral change(s) you need to make.  They also motivate you to make amends.

Research has demonstrated that behavior that results in embarrassment, guilt and shame leads to an evolution of behavior toward greater generosity and cooperation.  An added bonus is that by admitting to others your feelings of embarrassment or expressing feelings of guilt can actually make people like you better.  This self-disclosure allows others to see you as a more ethical person and leads to greater empathy.  Conversely, remaining unemotional or not admitting to embarrassment or shame tells others that you either didn’t realize that you violated any norms or that you don’t care.  This has the opposite effect of self-disclosure; it erodes trust, it erodes empathy, it can lead to people liking you less.

If you are like me, you might feel shame about feeling shame, guilty about feeling guilty and embarrassed about feeling embarrassed; they tend to feed each other.  As leaders, we need to embrace embarrassment, we need to embrace the feeling of guilt, and we need to embrace the emotion of shame within ourselves and within others.  Doing so enables us to live and work side by side with others, providing and building trust.  These are emotions that are necessary and serve a purpose.  As an effective leader, embrace the discomfort of embarrassment, shame and guilt within yourself and with others.

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