Victoria Coren wrote a very funny piece on embarrassment in Sunday’s Observer. Here’s her reaction to re-reading her teenage diary:
A hundred years have passed. I have no schoolteachers now, I have a mortgage and gas bills…..yet, reading that story, I still double up, put an involuntary hand to my throat and whisper: “Oh God…”
But why embarrassment? What’s the point of it? This is an intensely strong emotion – near-fatally so for teenagers – yet is utterly purposeless. I’m suddenly baffled as to why we’ve been enchained to it for so long.
Embarrassment predates the invention of trumpets to play over speeches. It existed before there was loo paper to stick to the bottom of shoes or telephones to hang up incorrectly before bitching about the person you were just speaking to.
Even in those dusty days when they were writing the Bible, their definition of Paradise was freedom from embarrassment. A world where you’d feel nothing if your trousers fell down, you called the teacher “Mum” or swept into a grand party and fell down the stairs. Millennia later, we still aren’t free. Why not? These things simply don’t matter. Why does it feel so much like they do?
Embarrassment, or the fear of it, is one of the main motivating factors behind behaviour in organisations. Why do people turn up to presentations with far more PowerPoint slides than they need? Because they are afraid of running out of stuff to say and looking silly. Why would they rather talk for hours, blinding the audience with a mass of data, rather than open a topic up to discussion? Because they can’t be sure where that discussion will go. Someone might ask an awkward question and make the speaker look stupid.
That is why, the more senior people get, the more people they have around them to protect them from embarrassment. Some organisations employ teams of PowerPoint Rangers whose only function is to provide data and finesse presentations that will make the leaders look good or, more importantly, minimise the risk of them looking like prats.
Embarrassing yourself is bad enough but causing someone senior to be embarrassed is a serious CLM (career-limiting move). Woe-betide you if you happen to be the one who put that animation into the bosses’ presentation which didn’t work at the crucial point. It doesn’t really matter what else you achieved in your time in the organisation; from that point onwards, you are screwed.
Asking embarrassing questions can also be a CLM, even if they are questions that everyone knows need to be asked. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, people will, literally, crash aeroplanes rather than break social norms. They will certainly crash companies. Even as the organisation teeters on the brink, no-one will ask those awkward everyone-look-at-their-shoes questions which get to the heart of what is wrong. Better to call in the receivers than have an uncomfortable conversation.
Harvard’s Chris Argyris came up with the term defensive routines to describe the elaborate systems, processes and unwritten rules that organisations set up to protect people from embarrassment.
Whenever human beings are faced with any issue that contains significant embarrassment or threat, they act in ways that bypass, as best they can, the embarrassment or threat.
Organizational defensive routines are actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat.
There are dozens of them in every organisation. Formalised meeting structures, project management tools, presentation software, complex performance management systems (performance discussions being one of the subjects posing the most risk of embarrassment) all help to reduce the threat. Of course, all of these can be rationalised, which is also important. It’s embarrassing to admit that we are afraid of being embarrassed, so we all collude with each other to rationalise the routines we create to stop ourselves from being embarrassed. That way, we not only avoid awkward questions but we create an environment where we avoid the embarrassment of talking about our aversion to embarrassment. Simple really.
Never underestimate the fear of embarrassment. It lurks in all of us and drives much of what we do. Seeing corporations not just as rational economic vehicles but also as huge systems to shield the powerful from embarrassment explains much about organisational behaviour. Looked at from this perspective, what might, at first, seem irrational doesn’t look so crazy after all. Given the choice between making more money and avoiding the risk of looking stupid, a lot of people will choose the latter. Designing our organisations in ways that will minimise embarrassment therefore makes perfect sense.