At Work

Overcoming Shame in the Workplace

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The teacher called my name and I felt my face ignite. Blood rushed to my cheeks and I knew immediately that I resembled a tomato. I quickly answered the question and tried to wish away my blushing cheeks, which was fruitless after a classmate whispered, “Why are your cheeks so red?”

This was a far-too-common scenario during my childhood. Eventually, I gained some self-confidence and shed a few insecurities so I can now speak when spoken to (most of the time) without turning into a ripened tomato. But, my cheeks still flare with the slightest inkling of guilt, embarrassment, or shame.

Do you know that feeling? The one when you want to crawl under your desk and hide, wrap yourself in an invisibility cloak, or just melt into a puddle?

While some feel it more than others, we’ve all been there, overwhelmed by feelings of imperfection, incompetence, failure, or humiliation. We all react differently—some hide, others lash out or become defensive—but shame is an undeniable part of our human existence.

In an environment where we’re evaluated on our performance, expected to succeed, rewarded for results, and scolded for mistakes, it’s no wonder the workplace is a prime breeding ground for shame. Rampant in any workplace environment today, shame is no new phenomenon. It fuels lies about our value and worth, and it integrally disrupts the pursuit of our calling.

Shame in the Garden

My mistakes at work have consequences, and I become acutely aware of them when I mess up. Shame envelops me, whispering “you’re not worthy,” and I have to fight my way out of it. If that’s true for me, imagine Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they knew they had sinned.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:8-10).

The Reformation Study Bible points out that the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin were both immediate and eternal. They became aware of their nakedness, humiliation, and weakness. They knew they messed up big time. Intimacy was shattered with God, each other, and creation, and they ran. In his grace, God didn’t let Adam and Eve stay hidden. Instead, he covered their sin and ours with Christ’s sacrifice, taking away our reasons for shame, purifying us from our sin so that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We are created new in Christ and assured that “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11).

Shame is a result of our sin. It distorts our perception of our worth and value in Christ, feeding into the lies we internalize about our inadequacy. We must remember that because of God’s grace we are freed in Christ from our sin, so that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Sin and shame don’t define us; Christ does.

Shame in the Workplace

While we have the ultimate, assured hope in Christ, practically living free from shame is really hard. In a workplace environment where our weaknesses and finitude are inevitably exposed, shame is stifling. It hinders creativity and suffocates innovation. It also comes in different shapes and sizes. You can be shamed for your faith, your beliefs, or your personal choices. In response to your ideas, mistakes, and input, others can quickly make you feel shame, especially when the stakes are high. Shame often comes in the form of office bullying by both managers and colleagues.

As Brené Brown points out, “Shame—the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—breeds fear.” And in doing so, “it crushes our tolerance for vulnerability, thereby killing engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity, and trust.” This domino effect is a slippery slope to organizational devastation.

Shame can derail an organization or a company, but more importantly, it thwarts us in answering our calling.

Deeply embedded feelings of “I am unworthy; I am incompetent; I am incapable” warp our confidence in who God created us to be and what he designed us to do. Shame prevents us from living freely into who God is calling us to be, and it instills fear in us so that, like the one-talent servant in the parable of the talents, we bury our gifts (Matt 25:24).

Shame is sneaky and destructive, and it’s a topic of much research and debate. If this topic resonates with you, we encourage you to dive deeper into exploring the types of shame in the workplace and biblical methods for addressing it.

Editor’s note: Our value comes from our identity in Christ and in the incredible purpose God has given us to take part in his redemption plan. Read more in All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel.

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On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Jun. 7, 2016.

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