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Markus Plate


Shame is a common, yet seldom acknowledged emotion. Shame signals a threatened social bond in which the claim of as what one wants to be seen (i.e., the claim for a certain relational identity and relative status positioning) is neglected by the other party. Using a case study approach, this chapter provides insights into how shame shapes the relationship and leadership structure in organizations. The case used is based on a documentary TV show; hence this chapter also provides insight in the use of visual/TV material to gain insight in relational leadership dynamics.

Keywords: Shame; face; leadership; relationship; reality TV

New Ways of Studying Emotions in Organizations Research on Emotion in Organizations, Volume 11, 81-107 Copyright © 2015 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited All rights of reproduction in any form reserved ISSN: 1746-9791/doi:10.1108/S1746-979120150000011005


Shame and it’s weaker cousin embarrassment are quintessential human emotions that regulate everyday social interaction (Barrett, 1995), both on the micro level of individual human interaction as well as on the macro level of society (Goffman, 1967; Scheff, 2000a, 2000b). In its essence, shame is both a self-conscious and social emotion. On the psychological level, it signals that your self (who you are, your personal identity) is faulty, worthless or wrong. On the social level, it signals that your self-inrelationship (who you claim to be in relation to the other person, your social identity) is faulty, as it is not accepted and acknowledged by the other party. Despite its importance, shame seems to be vanishing from open discourse in modern Western societies (Scheff, 2014) and subsequently finds rare treatment in organizational, management or leadership studies. The lack of research is surprising, though, as one would expect more scholarly interest in a factor that is at the center of regulating human interaction — and thus influences management and leader effectiveness and business performance.

In a recent review, though, Creed, Hudson, Okhuysen, and Smith- Crowe (2014) acknowledged the influence of shame in organizational processes by providing a framework that highlights the interplay of individually felt shame, the disciplinary power of shaming and the influence of shared understandings of shameful behavior. Creed et al. (2014) emphasize the importance of shame for a recent discourse in institutional theory which aims at uncovering the micro foundations of institutions such as interactions and sensemaking (Powell & Colyvas, 2008). A similar discourse can be found in leadership theory, in which the interactional and relational foundations of leadership are under investigation (Fairhurst & Uhl-Bien, 2012; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995; Uhl-Bien, 2006). In this tradition, Sauer and Ropo (2006) investigate the role of shame in leadership in the context of theater and report that although shame is experienced as aversive, it can encourage actors to work outside the normal way of acting and thus provide beneficial effects. However, shame seems to be a rather toxic emotion that often goes along with conflict. For example, Crowley (2014) emphasizes the negative effects of shame in relation to coercive measures of organizational control in manual labor and service sector firms. According to Crowley (2014, p. 430), these measures “promote[s] abuse that intensifies shame, generates hostility toward management, and contributes to conflict among coworkers” and as such have a detrimental effect on leadership and productivity.

This chapter investigates the interplay of shame and leadership by looking at the level of interaction and communication. The investigation is based on a case study of a lace-dying factory in England and aims to answer the question: Which role does shame play in establishing a leader—follower relationship?

The case is based on an uncommon data source, namely visual material based on a reality TV show. As a general trend, the use of visual materials in organization and management research gained popularity in recent years (Bell & Davison, 2013). Especially movies and TV provide the opportunity for unique insights into otherwise neglected topics: “While business school curricula, traditional case studies and textbooks tend to emphasize the rationality and order associated with organization, film draws attention to the embodied, personal and emotional nature of organizational life” (Bell, 2008, p. 1). The case in question thus provides a unique opportunity to generate interesting insight into the neglected topics of shame in organizations, especially leadership.

The aim of this chapter is thus twofold: It provides an introduction about the use of TV/movie material for research on emotional issues in organizations, as well as an insight into the function of shame and its relationship to leadership.

The reminder of this chapter is structured as follows. In the next section, an overview on movies as data source for emotional and organizational phenomena is provided. “Analysis of Emotions in Visual Material” shows examples for research on emotions that makes use of movies and TV material. “A Primer on Shame, Identity and Relationship” establishes the theoretical framework used in the case analysis. The analytical strategy for the case is explained in “Method of Analysis of the Case Study”, followed by an in-depth case reconstruction in “How Shame Undermines Leadership — Insights from a Case Study.” “Discussion and Conclusion” briefly summarizes and discusses the findings.

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