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Turning workplace shame into creativity

Mistakes are inevitable but organisations can learn from them, says new research co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Turning workplace shame into creativity
Shame, according to the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, is a “soul-eating emotion” – and because some mistakes at work are inevitable, such soul-destroying shame is a common workplace occurrence.

Yet newly published research co-authored by Andreas Richter, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School, concludes that managers and fellow employees can help channel workplace shame into creativity if the situation is handled skilfully and sensitively.

“People naturally want to overcome their workplace shame by demonstrating their value to the organisation, and one way of doing this is to show creativity,” says Richter. “The study finds that managers can facilitate this by providing an appropriate environment.”

The research – entitled “Turning shame into creativity: The importance of exposure to creative team environments” – is published in the January issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. The study is co-authored by Helena V. González-Gómez of NEOMA Business School in France and by Richter.

While there have been many studies on how negative emotions can cause harm in a workplace, the research provides new insight into positive workplace aspects of negative emotions.

The research found that managers can help transform shame into creativity by establishing team environments that promote creativity. That’s because creative co-workers can serve as role models, providing verbal and non-verbal cues that prompt new ideas and help restore the shamed colleague’s confidence by showing receptiveness to new ways of doing things even if they are risky. This demonstrates that the organisation accepts that risk often accompanies reward, and the occasional mistake is an occupational hazard of taking such risks.

“Although the occurrence of shame may be somewhat uncontrollable, its management is not,” the study concludes. “Managers and employees can turn seemingly negative energy into novel and useful ideas.”