A friend told me last week that her husband walks out of the room when The Apprentice is on. He hates embarrassment, even when it is someone else's and just can't bear to watch the candidates squirming as they try to justify their mistakes.
This got me thinking about embarrassment and the role it plays both as a motivator and a performance blocker in organisations. As Chris Argyris said, (Download DoubleLoopLearning.doc) people will go to great lengths to avoid embarrassment, even to the point of creating elaborate face-saving routines. Embarrassment avoidance is often behind the colluding behaviour we see in meetings. I avoid challenging you about your mistakes and, in return, you avoid challenging me about mine. That way we are all polite to each other and none of the difficult issues we are facing get discussed. As Argyris says, this behaviour becomes so routine that, eventually, we don't even realise that we are doing it.
Presentations are another source of potential embarrassment. Most people loathe any sort of public speaking. I know many well educated, articulate and knowledgeable people who get knots in their stomachs days, or even weeks, before a presentation. Why? Because the potential for embarrassment is huge.
Of course, at first, the fear of humiliation acts as a motivator. Most of us prepare our presentations well in advance. We make sure we have a good set of visual aids, that we have done our research and that there will be people around to help if the equipment doesn't work when we turn up. So great is the fear of looking like idiots that we make doubly sure everything is well prepared in advance.
But, so anxious are we to embarrassment-proof our presentations, we often avoid opening up debates with the audience or adding participative exercises. As a result, we may give a polished and well structured performance but the audience's and our own opportunities to learn are closed down.
The imperative to avoid loss of face is behind much of our dysfunctional behaviour in the workplace. We steer clear of awkward conversations, of challenging people and, sometimes, of engaging with colleagues at all. I have known managers who were skilled at creating any number of excuses to sit in offices and hide from their staff. Important 'back-to-back meetings', position papers which just had to be completed that day and terribly complex spreadsheets were among the reasons given for not walking around the open plan offices. The real reason, of course, was that talking to team members might bring up all sorts of issues that, in the absence of clear solutions, the managers feared might make them look stupid or incompetent.
Fear of embarrassing conversations, or of looking stupid, is often behind those emails that we don't answer because they might lead to awkward conversations, or the performance issues we don't tackle because to do so might involve an unseemly argument. It can also stop us from asking for help when we need it most.
Such is our desire for psychological safety that it impedes our performance and can, in extreme circumstances, get us into more trouble, thus making us look stupid, which was just what we were trying to avoid.
Breaking this cycle involves taking risks and, sometimes, falling flat on your face as a result. And the funny thing is, other people are a lot more forgiving than you think they are. What might seem mortifying to you is often just a routine mistake to those watching you. Often, your mistakes are not as embarrassing as you think they are.
In the workplace, especially, people put a huge amount of energy into embarrassment avoidance. In some workplaces, it seems to be the predominant activity. If we all worried less and took a few more risks we'd learn more, perform better and probably be a lot happier.