Shame as a Threat to Leadership — Case Reconstruction

In what is to follow, three situations are reconstructed from the perspective of shame and leadership, based on the relational identities of the interactants. When needed, further theoretical elaboration is provided.

Shame and Identity Work

The first instance of shame can be seen in the reaction of Richard, after being confronted with the idea that he is aggressive and frightening the staff. Richard seems flabbergasted: “I don’t know how to take that ...” Robinson frames this as being defensive and provides comforting words:

“It is important Richard not to be defensive here because I think you are a decent bloke.” Richard continues: “It’s not defensive it is just a little bit of well defending yourself a little bit, I don’t think I am right aggressive.”

The face and identity Richards claims — not being an aggressive guy — is threatened by the feedback of the consultant. Robinson tries to save face by attributing being a “decent bloke” to Richard. Richards tries to stick to the claimed face by denying that the granted identity suits him. Later, though, the feedback triggers a process of identity work. Identity work can be understood as the “forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening or revising the constructions that are productive of a precarious sense of coherence and distinctiveness” (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002, p. 626). The feedback of the consultant created a sense of self-doubt and skepticism about Richards perception of who he thinks he is in interaction (not an aggressive guy), and who he “really” is (a frightening, aggressive guy). The realization of this difference and the doubt that he might be somebody else as he thinks he is “a shock, the aggression side is a shock” for Richard. At home, he discusses the identity granted by the consultant with his wife and daughter: “I am still quite amazed that he [Gerry Robinson] has come up with that I’m aggressive and saying that to me.” His wife responds: “It is not that you are aggressive, it is just that you look ... just you look aggressive, your hair is short and ...” The wife also tries to save face and the old identity by making the issue about looks (the outer appearance), not the inner identity. Richard also checks the granted identity with his daughter:

Richard: Do you see me as aggressive Ann?

Daughter: Not at home, but at work I think you are, when people aren’t doing the job that you want them to do you get angry.

During the next days, Richard continues to work on the feedback and thus on the identity and face that he feels being rightful to claim in interaction:

Richard: It is obviously going around now, it is always in the back of my mind as to what he has said about my own personal approach to people and that’s err something I am going to work on over a period of ., well as long as it takes.

He checks the old identity with a staff member:

Richard: When he [Robinson] came he actually made a few comments that I come across as being very abrasive and very aggressive.

Worker: Yeah, that’s right.

Richard: How do you feel about that?

Worker: I think most people found that, you were like untouchable.

The worker confirms the consultant’s comment on Richard’s effect. His answer furthermore indicates a comment not only on Richard (aggressive) but on the relationship between management and staff which indicates a very distanced quality (untouchable). This comment already foreshadows the insecure bond between management and staff that was created during the first months after Richard took over (see the analysis on the shame spiral for an in-depth look into this issue).

To summarize: Richard was used to claim a certain face and identity in interaction, which is discursively established as “not being an aggressive guy.” The consultant doesn’t grant this face and identity; which “shocks” Richard. Within the shame framework, I interpret this as a loss of face, and the experience of shame (“shock,” being “surprised” that the issue of aggression was “openly said” to him, etc.). We see face-saving work by the consultant (“decent bloke”) and wife (“maybe you just look aggressive”) and a process of identity work where Richard questions his old identity and works on a new understanding of himself as leader.

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