In his book The Happiness Industry, political economist Williams Davies writes that CEOs have now become “psychologists-in-chiefs,” managing the well-being of employees as much as business operations.
The term “psychologist-in-chief” may have been tongue-in-cheek, but the pace of innovation depends upon having more leaders who aren’t afraid to show emotion. By opening up about failures, leaders signal that it’s OK to struggle and to fail.
Vulnerability researcher Brené Brown quotes management consultant Peter Sheahan, who underlies this point, in her book Daring Greatly:
“The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. … If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams.”
In other words, shame is paralyzing and unproductive. It is the fear of disconnection. In Brown’s popular TED talk on shame, she points out that the way to combat shame is through transparency and empathy. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown said in a 2013 interview. “It cannot survive empathy.”
In Daring Greatly she writes that the key to combating shame is knowing what situations or comments from others trigger it.
It’s also important to separate yourself from outcomes, both professional and personal. When identity is attached to the success or failure of your company/performance/product, then “you’ve handed your self-worth to what people think.” In fact, she writes, once you’ve experienced intoxicating success it becomes even more dangerous. The key is embracing a healthy distance from outcomes.
Shame stems from the false believe that “I am a failure” when things don’t go well, instead of “that product failed—let’s try again.” CEOs and managers can do their part by setting the tone that failure is just part of the process.