Startup Shame
October 28, 2014

Startup Shame

by Brian de Haaff

Shame is a seldom discussed but real workplace monster. It’s the behemoth of destructive emotions. Different from guilt, which is feeling bad about something you did, shame is the feeling that you are unworthy because of something you are. Guilt can be reconciled through action, but shame? Shame feels insidious, permanent, and deeply rooted within us. And it loves to rear its head at startups.

I am a confident guy, but all of us are vulnerable to questioning our worth. And when we do, we enter a lonely, nightmarish place. It strangles our confidence. Here’s how shame happened to me and what I learned about it.

I started my career as a product marketing manager a long time ago before I co-founded a few software companies, including Aha! I was working for an early-stage tech company on a marketing program to launch a new commerce service with a proven ad agency and our most important partner, Microsoft.

But when the initial designs came back from the agency they were provoking, dark and brooding. I enthusiastically presented them to my boss, who was a mentor to me. She said, “That’s just stupid, what were you thinking?” But here is what I heard, “You are stupid.” I stumbled my way through the rest of the meeting feeling a bit out-of-breath and it took me a few days to recover.

She did not mean to shame me. But we were moving so fast and the office environment was so blunt, so she said what she said. And rather than just moving forward, it stuck with me. I have seen this pattern repeat at startups where progress is measured in hours — not weeks.

Those wrestling with shame ask themselves, ‘Am I good enough?’

We make mistakes. But our mistakes can be corrected. They should not permanently stain our soul. When our errors come to light, often with witnesses like bosses or coworkers, sometimes we make another mistake in our shame-fueled reaction by either becoming defiant or by withdrawing. When we become defiant and try to justify or defend our mistakes, we are perceived as hostile, whiny, and angry. When we withdraw, it is hard to be motivated to fix anything.

However, there are ways to address workplace shame without feeling like all is lost. Here are some ideas that worked for me:

Name it Whether you’re feeling shame internally (self-imposed) or externally (someone is shaming you), naming the feeling as “shame” instead of as guilt or as failure is a first step towards combating it. See shame for what it is — a negative emotion. Identify and define the shame and differentiate the error from it with another name as well.

Reject it Whether you or someone else is shaming you, reject the feeling by reminding yourself that you are a person of value and worth. Actions can be corrected, and an error does not define you. We all make mistakes. The test of ourselves is in how healthfully and effectively we deal with such matters. You can course-correct by choosing to focus on different, positive outcomes. Being solution-minded redirects shame like nothing else can.

Be responsible Do not become defensive if a mistake is caught by someone else. And do not try to hide from it. Sometimes the very act of hiding it sucks it deeply in and paralyzes you from fixing it. And the longer you hold on to it the more it starts to own you. Correct wrongs early and often so that they do not fester. This leaves little time for feelings of shame to build.

Remember your worth Believe in your value as a team member, and believe in your co-workers’ value, too. If someone makes a mistake, do not view them as their mistake. Try to remember that people are a sum of their actions and seek to view yourself that same holistic way. How we treat ourselves is reflected by how we treat others.

We are all perfectly imperfect.

Ideally, shame would not enter our lives at all. But, as we all fail, sometimes those failures move from temporary mess-ups to lasting wounds. And this is particularly true at startups where there is little room for error. Rejecting shame through a fundamental belief in your worth and by constructive, solution-minded plans is a great way to build confidence and avoid the hidden monster.

What have you done to stop the spread of shame? Comment on Hacker News.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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