As human emotions go, shame is one of the most crippling. The fear of exclusion or being exposed is deeply embedded in the human psyche. This can keep us from actions that may harm or cause discomfort to others. Despite its strong self-regulatory impact, we have managed to weaponize it—use it as a tool for control of people and situations. If you aren’t one of the over 7.5-million people who’ve seen Brené Brown’s TED talk “Listening to Shame,” you won’t be disappointed.
Traditionally, none have wielded this weapon—disguised as accountability—as expertly as the media. We are subjected to the daily battery of people from politicians to celebrities to business moguls through public airing of dirty laundry aimed at swaying our opinions like the branches of a weeping willow. Public shaming can destroy careers, cause stock prices to plummet or force public figures to resign in disgrace, leaving an open door for the next regime. With such power, it’s no wonder we attempt to avoid it at all costs. No one likes to be “it” in the blame game.
When it comes to chronic social issues, how do you get beyond finger-pointing and blame to solutions? The business sector blames the social services sector of wasting valuable resources on failed projects. The social services sector blames the business sector for failing to help, or worse—for causing the problems. We’ve developed such a pervasive culture of shame and blame that fear of being targeted can immobilize the most visionary in either space. Agreeing to stop the blame game and think of failure differently is our best hope of moving beyond shame and into a developmental, supportive culture.
Our most chronic issues swim in a sea of complexity and ambiguity—there are no simple answers. This means strategies will inevitably fail on some level. Do we scrap the whole strategy and remove those who developed it? Do we waste precious time and more resources starting from scratch? Or can we assess, adjust and keep moving forward? Our choice—we can think of failure as simply learning. Like a child learning to walk, we don’t mock when he falls. We cheer him on.
Failure is developmental. Rather than allowing it to be a catalyst for things falling apart, it can be an opportunity to learn. Complex issues tend to have few knowns, making our strategies addressing them an educated guess at best. We can observe to find patterns and deploy multiple strategies—adaptive strategies—to discover knowns. If we design strategies with the intention of being adaptive, bumps in the road are opportunities to refine, or even change direction, rather than catastrophic failures.
The Stanford d.school’s methodology behind “design thinking” is based on the principle of getting comfortable with ambiguity. One of the their eight “core abilities” is negative ambiguity, defined as the ability to recognize and persist in the discomfort of not knowing, and develop tactics to overcome ambiguity when needed. Design thinking has become a movement, encouraging us to fail early and often to move beyond immobilizing fear of failure and into a place of quickly getting back onto the horse and back in the race.
If we can learn to look at failure as opportunity, we can leave shame culture in the dust behind us with our failed strategies and continue moving toward solutions.
Let’s just keep moving—together and upward.