I was recently struck by some observations by Simon Cavicchia (in De Haan and Sills, 2012) on the experience of shame in the coaching relationship. It prompted me to think more broadly about the impact of shame in relation particularly, to individuals who are referred for remedial coaching, and to teams who become labelled as “dysfunctional” and require intervention. Whilst coaching is losing some of the stigma it once had, when offered in a remedial context it still smacks of punishment especially when it feels imposed rather than being voluntary.

High-functioning professionals reach the top of their profession because of hard work, skill and carefully honed expertise. Many are ambitious and driven by their own and others’ high expectations. Furthermore, many such individuals who have been brought up to believe that they are clever and talented. When they find themselves under scrutiny or subject to criticism from colleagues or their organisation, it can be difficult to reconcile this with their positive self-image. Others have been subject to so much criticism in their upbringing or early training that any subsequent censure simply reactivates old feelings of humiliation. In either circumstance, such deep-rooted psychological processes can prove extremely challenging for a manager or coach who is trying to address the problem.

Shame is not exclusive to individuals – it can affect whole teams or even departments. In teams that become labelled as difficult or dysfunctional, the members collectively feel exposed, vulnerable, singled out and victimised as the villains of the piece. Shame can manifest as splitting (e.g. camps and factions) within the team, withdrawal from the organisation, scapegoating of individuals and demonising management. Just like individuals, teams thrown under the organisational spotlight find it difficult to reflect on their own behaviour. Their collective sense of shame may push them into finding someone else to blame for their difficulties or retreating from the organisation and “doing their own thing”. Cavicchia says that “the experience of shame disconnects individuals from a realistic assessment of their resources; it can drive a retreat from the relationship”. The organisation interprets this retreat or disengagement as yet further evidence that the team is dysfunctional.

To maximise the chances of successful remedial coaching the following practical tips could be helpful for managers:

Don’t be put off at the first signs of defensiveness or rebuff, recognise that this may be part of the understandable shame that the individual or team is feeling for being on the “management radar”.
Avoid the “fundamental attribution error” – i.e. don’t assume that the individual is the problem but look at the context and other factors (.e.g. health; stress; workload, etc) that might be precipitating problem behaviours.
Model a calm, supportive and reflective attitude – and focus primarily on rebuilding a positive relationship rather than fleeing too quickly into processes such as disciplinaries or investigations.
Be clear about the behavioural change that is needed – but allow some choice and involvement by the team/individual in how they achieve this
Focus as much on successes and achievements and how to maximise the impact of these, as on the behaviours to be corrected.
Demonstrate through whatever means are practical that you genuinely recognise and value what the individual or team brings to the organisation. Start by understanding how they want to be recognised
Establish clear professional boundaries: avoid getting sucked into alliances with specific team members, corridor/pub conversations, promises made in order to prevent conflict but which cannot actually be delivered
If you are manager tasked with “sorting out the problem” set aside your own anxiety or possible need to prove yourself to your organisation to retain your position or win further work.
Where dynamics are complex and emotional legacies longstanding, seek support from a professional with understanding of some of the psychological processes that can interfere with functional working relationships
Use in house expertise only if you are convinced that they will deal impartially with the situation. However, this is often – by definition – extremely difficult.

As a start, it is helpful simply to recognise the possibility that shame and humiliation are playing a significant role in reactions to referral, and to be prepared to work sensitively and with the right coach (internal or external) to minimise their effects.

“Reducing the fear of exposure and shame can make it easier for individuals to take fuller accountability for the part they have played in any situation, reflect and learn from it”
Cavicchia, 2012

Cavicchia, S. Shame in the coaching relationship: reflections on individual and organisational vulnerability. In De Haan, E and Sills, C (Eds) Coaching Relationships: The relational coaching field book. Libri Publishing, 2012