Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part VIII

Career derailers and hiding things we’re ashamed of

Derailers that damage careers and organisations. Mismanaged responsibilities where unnecessary mistakes are made. Work relationships that become damaged. We now enter the heartland of what happens when we, as leaders, fail to confront and come to some peace with our shames. How does hiding impact leadership effectiveness and authenticity?

Beware your derailers

Shame keeps things in the dark. Unseen, untouched, and unexamined. Here, we hide things we don’t want others to see. We also hide things from ourselves. What you don’t see can’t hurt you, right?

Unfortunately, not. When you are less aware of ‘your shames’, the likelihood increases that one of your derailers will do damage to your career. A derailer is a personality-related risk factor or blindspot that literally obstructs your leadership or career to divert it from its intended course. The personality traits associated with derailers are known as ‘dark-side traits’. Depending on the mandate of the leader involved, their derailers will threaten organisational effectiveness. At a local level, derailers undermine team performance and staff wellbeing. At a macro level, derailers can wipe millions off the value of company balance sheets, involving fraud, sabotage, and abuse against coworkers and clients. (Arguably, the Great Recession was a direct consequence of the incidence of derailers across a critical mass of decision-makers. Consider the case of Jérôme Kerviel convicted in the 2008 Société Générale trading loss.)

When it comes to detecting derailers, the Hogan Leadership Forecast Series is one of the most advanced and best scientifically-validated instruments. Here, ‘risk scores’ are provided against 11 dark-side personality traits: Excitable; Sceptical; Cautious; Reserved; Leisurely; Bold; Mischievous; Colourful; Imaginative; Diligent, and; Dutiful.

The 11 Dark-Side Personality Traits From the Hogan Leadership Forecast(TM) Challenge Report

  • Excitable Concerns being overly enthusiastic about people or projects, and then becoming disappointed with them. Result: seems to lack persistence.
  • Sceptical Concerns being socially insightful, but cynical and overly sensitive to criticism. Result: seems to lack trust.
  • Cautious Concerns being overly worried about being criticised. Result: seems resistant to change and reluctant to take chances.
  • Reserved Concerns lacking interest in or awareness of the feelings of others. Result: seems to be a poor communicator.
  • Leisurely Concerns being independent, ignoring others’ requests, and becoming irritable if they persist. Result: seems stubborn, uncooperative, and a procrastinator.
  • Bold Concerns having inflated views of one’s competence and worth. Result: seems unable to admit to mistakes or learn from experience.
  • Mischievous Concerns being charming, risk-taking, and excitement-seeking. Result: seems to have trouble maintaining commitments and learning from experience.
  • Colourful Concerns being dramatic, engaging, and attention-seeking. Result: seems preoccupied with being noticed and may lack sustained focus.
  • Imaginative Concerns thinking and acting in interesting and even eccentric ways. Result: seems creative but possibly lacking in judgement.
  • Diligent Concerns being conscientious, perfectionistic, and hard to please. Result: tends to disempower staff.
  • Dutiful Concerns being eager to please and reluctant to act independently. Result: tends to be pleasant and agreeable, but reluctant to support subordinates.

The personality traits themselves and high scores against them are not problematic. They only become risky when individuals stop actively managing their public image, or when the organisational culture supports and encourages the behaviours associated with the personality traits. Situations that increase the risk of these traits manifesting in damaging behaviours include: high stress; significant change and/or uncertainty; multi-tasking and/or task saturation; poor person-job fit; boredom; feeling too comfortable in your work environment such that you pay no or little attention to your social mask. It pays to note three key current trends. One, in our current disruptive context, organisations are undergoing an unprecedented amount of organisational change and restructuring. This constitutes significant change and drives uncertainty. Two, people are concerned about maintaining the business case for their employment or next promotion. This is translating to increased multi-tasking and task saturation, as well as higher stress levels. Three, people question their personal career purpose and meaning at work more. This is accompanied by a rise in awareness about poor person-job fit and often attended by increased boredom. The stage is set brilliantly for the emergence of more derailers in the workplace.

When we hide things we are ashamed of from ourselves, there are aspects of our personality that remain hidden from us. What we don’t see will hurt us, because when we can’t see it, we cannot we actively manage how it influences our behaviours. We provide some examples to illustrate. Where your value is put into question, you may overplay your hand (the Bold dark-side trait) to prove what you are really capable of, and may take risks that don’t make sense. You may become too eager to please (Dutiful), weakening your position in negotiations and failing to adequately protect your teams’ interests. You may start to become resentful of your superiors or clients, and privately challenge their competence, making your voice heard in passive aggressive behaviours that damage your credibility (Leisurely). You may create an entertaining or dramatic persona for yourself to distract from a lack of self-esteem (Colourful), and thereby unintentionally undermine others’ perceptions of your leadership gravitas. In your perfectionistic attempts to be ‘ever better’, you may hold yourself and others to excruciatingly high standards (Diligent) that undermine team morale (“nothing is ever good enough for her, so why try?”) and ostracise other stakeholders who find it hard to gel with you.

Derailers might be likened to fire: they can radically transform a situation. Within a short time frame, they can raise to the ground entire swathes of your reputation, credibility, and career. Relationships get burned, and people becomes afraid to entrust particular responsibilities to you. Where derailers are fire, your organisational context might be likened to the weather, which may help or hinder the fire’s development. Here, shame is both the tinder and a continually renewing source of dry wood.

Shame and responsibility

With great power comes great responsibility” – or so was the sage advice given by Uncle Ben to Peter Parker aka Spiderman. This advice relates ascendancy to obligation, and although its provenance is unclear, noteworthy references to it are found in the Bible and a decree passed by the French National Convention during the French Revolution.

Your role as leader – whether in title, deed, or both – entrusts certain responsibilities to you. Where you hide your shames from yourself and others, you reduce the scope not only for input and feedback, but also for authentic relating to your stakeholders – be they your team, clients, peers, or superiors.

With respect to input and feedback, when you wish to hide something you are ashamed about, you are far less likely to reach out to others for advice, guidance, or support. What leader could not say that there have been times when they would have benefitted from the advice or support of select others? Instead, a corollary of shame is that we are afraid to have something revealed about ourselves that would risk someone else viewing us negatively. We don’t want to seem unintelligent, unable to cope, or weak in the eyes of those we respect or want to respect us. Thus, we hold back, even though we may sense that the person we’re afraid to approach might in fact hold the very key we seek. This fear to catch the critical eye of someone else can mean we forego key insights to inform our choices, initiatives, and careers.

In many senses, it is by foregoing this input and feedback, that we may fail in our responsibility as leaders. We are after all responsible for outcomes that impact several, if not countless, stakeholders. It is worth saying too, that we count among our most important stakeholders. We let ourselves down, and may miss career-defining opportunities, so afraid are we to share the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed.

Ironically, it is usually only after a significant life event that we come to realise that that which we are ashamed of may not really be so bad after all. Or at least hiding it does not mean so much to us as what we sacrifice by doing so. Indeed, it is the act of coming to uncover and share it that is the hardest part. This is the process of peeling the onion. (For the avid readers: Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion is a piercing, if not sometimes wantonely obstructive, exposition of coming to terms with one’s shames.)

Shame and authentic leadership

Derailment, responsibility, and reputation. These themes circle around each other, and at points become enmeshed. Where does this leave us with authentic leadership?

The essence of authentic leadership is showing up in a way that feels true to us and honest about what matters to us. In Part VI of our shame series, we used the metaphor of a shop window. Here, when we feel ashamed, we remove what we want to hide from others from the window display. This clearly also removes aspects of ourselves that we might otherwise bring to how we show up as leaders.

Hiding can also inhibit or undermine our ability to authentically relate to others. Where we avoid or exclude someone, we turn down an interaction that may provide us or them with valuable feedback. We also preclude development of a good working relationship with them. Where we hide behind emails, Slack interactions, and busyness, we send out the signal that we not want an authentic interaction with the person or people in question. Instead, we communicate withdrawal, unavailability, and in the worst cases, passive aggression. Often, this leaves the other person feeling rejected, blown off, or quite nonchalent about their relationship with us. Where we make efforts to hide and are called out – or worse, smoked out of our den – we may become quite infuriated and act in ways that are disproporionate to the ‘crime’ committed (particularly bearing in mind the inherent subjectivity of shame; see Part VI).

How might hiding interrupt your process towards authentic leadership? The manner in which you try to hide yourself – be that sudden departures, shunning certain individuals, or otherwise making yourself unavailable – can undermine the best laid attempts to show up authentically. It was rarely the intention of any bid for authenticity to show up as rude, impolite, irrational, unable to manage oneself, overly emotional, or passive aggressive. The point with shame is that you might not even realise that you are hiding in some ways. These ways may make it unlikely, if not utterly impossible, for others to find your intended brand of authentic leadership credible. (That said, arguably your authentic leadership will be genuine where it reflects your shame responses. However, here it will become a part of your leadership of which are ashamed!) Where a ‘shame episode’ interrupts your development of intentional authentic leadership, it may be so jarring, that you may decide to return to whatever social mask you had before the exercise began.

Hiding draws to a close

Shame is a primary and pervasive experience, and although it may not be readily identified as such, it sits beneath a lot of our motivators to action. It is developing a rigorous understanding of what motivates and moves us that forms the backbone to increasing our personal impact as leaders. Here, we ask, what can I do to radically increase my effectiveness? How can I develop gravitas? How can I develop authentic leadership? Invariably, your answers to these questions will sooner or later touch on shame and what it means for you.

It was never the intention of this exploration of shame that it be quite so long. It was alloted three parts, and that is how many parts ‘hiding as a response to shame’ alone has consumed. In a crucial sense this honestly reflects how deep shame can go, and how many facets of our personal and professional lives it can touch. It also reflects how unique our experience of shame can be, where for one individual it can mean that they never dare to find out what they truly want (personal career purpose), for another it can inspire overly bold risk-taking (career derailer), and yet another, it can mean that a seemingly small interaction with a coworker means they never risk eye contact with that individual for their next 6 years at the firm (stakeholder engagement).

Next week, we will address envy. Our hope is that, in so doing, we are not opening Pandora’s Box.