This Leadership Motivation Is Toxic. Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Do It

Accepting shame as a motivator is a recipe for misery. GETTY

Accepting shame as a motivator is a recipe for misery.
GETTY

A top executive I know once received an email in error that called him out as someone who lacked potential for a top role at the company. He printed it out and taped it to his desk.

“It reminds me every day,” he said, “that I’m one screw up away from total failure.”

Motivation through self-shaming.

Contrary to what many leaders believe, shaming yourself is a road to internal suffering, not a road to outward success.

A certain kind of shame is valid in its proper context. If you do something morally wrong – steal a colleague’s idea or make a promise you don’t intend to keep – you should regret it, feel guilty, even ashamed of your actions. That’s not unhealthy. It might lead you to apologize and might prevent you from doing it again.

That is not the shame that puts your fundamental goodness or wholeness into question. That form of deep shame is toxic.

When Shame Corrupts Your Identity

Deep shame as an emotional driver reinforces the false belief that you are not good enough or you’re inherently too flawed to accomplish what you set out to do. People who use shame this way think it makes them work harder, but no matter what they achieve, the deep shame abides until it becomes their identity: They are failures. Shame continues to pull them down rather than lift them up.

Shaming ourselves to the core will not promote growth, answer our deep longing to belong or earn us the gold ring of our own inherent value as a human being. It definitely won’t motivate us to perform.

Delivering results requires hard work and fierce resolve. You will test your limits and, at times, push past them to start your own business, to disrupt your industry, or to turn around a faltering business. But the idea that nothing succeeds without real effort is not equivalent to measuring your worthiness — or unworthiness — as a person every time you give something a shot.

Certainly, self-evaluation is a valid path to growth, but to succeed it must be decoupled from deep shame.

Another executive shared a more centered approach in which he sees himself as a work in progress, growing and adapting to meet business challenges and new geopolitical realities as they arise. Every three months, he takes time to review and revise his course.

“I ask myself, ‘Am I doing the right things? How do I need to realign for the three- to 12-months ahead?’ Then I write myself a memo to mid-course correct,” he told me. “I don’t blame myself for mistakes made along the way.”

Trust the Basic Goodness in Your Center of Wellbeing

Sometimes we gain our sense of value from the contributions we make at work and the ways in which we help people in our lives. Deeper than that, there is a fundamental goodness in our center of wellbeing we do not need to earn.

Qualities such as integrity, kindness, tranquility, generosity, and wisdom reside in our center of wellbeing. When we cover ourselves in deep shame, we squelch the beauty and power of our inner goodness. When we achieve because we wish to grow those qualities within ourselves and for the sake of others, our motivation is healthy.

Too many leaders harm themselves – and suffer in misery – by answering the siren call of self-shame and believing that wallowing in their flaws will motivate them to achieve. On the contrary, all of us are more likely to realize our dreams and live fulfilling lives if we cast out the false narrative of deep shame and instead motivate ourselves by growing the intrinsic worth and goodness at our center.

Published on December 5, 2022 on Forbes.com.

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