Responding creatively to shame in organisational life

Responding creatively to shame in organisational life

12th April 2019

John Bazalgette and Susan Harrison consider the impact of shame on organisational life and how FE leaders can deal with it

In her 2019 FETL Provocation, Shame, Learning and Repair:  Fostering Compassion in Organisational Life, Dame Ruth Silver writes that:

Shame is often confused with guilt …. Guilt is a feeling we have about something we have done.  It concerns our actions and behaviour, particularly where there is a gap between these and our own individual standards.  Shame, on the other hand, is much more fundamentally about the self.  It concerns who we are and, as such its roots go deeper into the psyche, with longer lasting, potentially more debilitating effects.  While guilt has to do with what we expect of ourselves, shame is about the judgement of others, of the world, and our own perceived failure to measure up to it.  

Every organisational leader understands that their institution needs to maintain its public reputation in order to win and retain the resources needed to deliver the service demanded by the context.  These include:

  • public confidence from the local community, based on the delivery of effective and safe services;
  • clients who aspire to gain from their involvement;
  • motivated staff whose normal hopes and anxieties enrol their sense of vocation in achieving the organisation’s purpose;
  • finance, staff and estates.

The differentiation between guilt and shame draws on the work of Brene Brown, the North American expert on vulnerability and leadership.[1] Brown’s descriptions of vulnerability, guilt and shame provide a framework to begin to think beyond the personal and to understand how leaders risk experiencing organisational and systemic vulnerability, guilt and shame.  Applying her approach organisationally we could say:

  • Guilt: ‘This organisation did something bad.’
  • Shame: ‘This organisation is bad.’

Exposure and vulnerability are normal experiences for anyone in a leadership position when getting things wrong. We fear that critics not only look at the events but may also attribute mistakes to us in a directly personal way. This can make it hard to admit mistakes openly.  Yet, in truth, leaders do much of their learning from their mistakes.

Historically, colleges of further education have identified with their local communities, especially the local economy. We believe that college leaders who maintained a positive organisational image as contributors to local wellbeing may have felt freer to take appropriate risks when admitting mistakes. They could acknowledge any guilt with integrity, seeing it in terms of organisational learning. Since learning is a core purpose of educational institutions, this integrates the vocation of teachers and the aspirations of students.

Since incorporation, central government has weakened that local relationship, replacing it with policies, resourcing and regulation which provide demands upon college leaders which relate less and less to their local communities.  FETL publications speak about how the sector has been subjected to years of fragmented national political direction.[2]

When an organisation’s local delivery gets compromised, consciously or unconsciously, by factors in the wider context, often factors beyond its control, the organisational image of the ‘good self’ is threatened. The organisation risks sliding into shame.  This often results blaming individual ‘bad’ persons, who become ‘martyrs’ and ‘scapegoats’ – frequently Principals but also students who are least in a position to do anything about it.

We believe that learning from organisational guilt and shame must be based on a systemic understanding of role, purpose, and the operational context which together sustain the learning endeavour.

FETL has commissioned organisational consultants, John Bazalgette and Susan Harrison,  to develop work on how issues of organisational shame are being experienced in the further education sector. They would welcome readers’ thoughts on the ideas set out in this blog post. You can email them directly at and


[1] Brene Brown. 2013. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love Parent and Lead. London, Penguin.

[2] See, for example. the memoir of Estelle Morris in Marvellous Regiment (FETL, 2009, pp. 55–59:



One thought on “Responding creatively to shame in organisational life”

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