The Limits of Shame: Time to shower with your enemy?

The Limits of Shame: Time to shower with your enemy?

I started a Beyond Certification Group on LinkedIn just before Christmas and made an exploratory post or two before holidays and stepping aside as TFT’s CEO got in the way of posting further. I got some great questions in response to my post on the Nasty & Damaging Politics of Shame. One asked "if not campaigning then what?" for NGOs and another noted that surely there was still a place for both the campaigning, shame and moral indignation approach and the TFT approach where we remove shame from the equation.

I'm not in fact arguing for a TFT approach versus a campaigning/shame approach. The two are not mutually exclusive. TFT's engagement with companies sometimes starts with a shame campaign that creates tension that we use as energy to help companies move to a different place. I do believe there is still a place for traditional shame campaigns but like antibiotics, I fear the approach has been overused. It's becoming tired and companies are increasingly resistant to it. What if the company Execs don't feel shame? Campaigns fall on deaf ears.

Many companies have heard the call for change and are investing serious money implementing ambitious programs. In some cases, where progress isn't as fast as NGOs would like, they reach for their shame hammer to write a blog or to launch a report but increasingly, companies are pushing back saying "Hold on, we're doing X, Y and Z and we've already done A, B and C! We’ve heard you, now you’re attacking us. Go and bother someone else!" In more and more cases, genuine efforts to change are being made on many fronts and so it’s harder to shame someone into action when they’re already there.

My sense is that we really are approaching the limits to shame campaigns and actually this is not such a bad thing. Shame isn’t a great emotion and shame campaigns often drive people away from dialogue and cooperation into corners and they stay there doing environmentally or socially bad business-as-usual for too long while the shame and negative consequences pile higher. Shame campaigns have been a key foundation for NGOs since they burst on the scene in the 1960s and we’d be worse off without the changes they’ve achieved. BUT…and it’s a big but…we’re still heading for 6oC warming so my sense is we’d better do something more effective and quick else we’ll all go down the gurgler together, one lot heaping shame upon an increasingly recalcitrant other.

We really do have to work together. Fighting with each other hasn’t prevented the environmental and social disasters that are overwhelming everything. Why do we think more fighting will do any better? Videos and social media have been used as bigger, more powerful weapons in the shame wars in recent years but nuking people with shame bombs can only go so far. Eventually, people get sick of it, walk away and keep doing what they’ve always done and on we plunge to our eventual demise.

Might NGOs more effectively engage with senior managers, CEOs and Board Chairs? I’ve seen time after time the power of relationships based on trust. Achieve trust and watch change explode, perhaps still not as quickly as we need given the mess we’re in but certainly much faster than relationships built on shame. Time to build bigger showers.

Cartoon used with kind permission from Michael Leunig 

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