That awkward handshake you mistook for a hug. Sharing your screen on a Zoom call without closing your leisurely browsing. Or worse, forgetting to hit mute on a conference call. Our daily work lives provide infinite opportunities to feel embarrassed.
Embarrassing events can lead to many emotions and even physical reactions. From blushing to face scrunching at the cringe worthiness of the moment, humans experience very strong reactions in the face of embarrassment. As a result, some of us may dwell on the moment, causing additional emotional rupture. For leaders, embarrassing events maybe seen as a threat to their professionalism. However, research shows that this fear of embarrassing events maybe misguided. In fact, there are many positive outcomes from being embarrassed which can contribute to a positive work environment.
What embarrassment signals to our colleagues
Sociologist Erving Goffman theorized that embarrassment tells our colleagues and peers that we are concerned and committed to social norms. This is because embarrassment comes as a result of doing something that we would have otherwise not normally do and that we would not willingly do it again. In the realm of society and the collective understanding of people, this is a positive notion. By being concerned with behaving in accordance to what our peers expect, we police ourselves and demonstrate that we care about what other people think.
Benefits of feeling embarrassed
Despite the strong physical reaction and near humiliation, embarrassing events can be beneficial. Here are ways that leaders can turn an embarrassing event into a positive experience.
Trustworthiness – according to an article from the Washington Post, research shows that individuals who exhibit feelings of embarrassment are deemed more trustworthy than those who are not. Depending on the situation, this can be an important characteristic to be able to demonstrate to your peers.
Preparation – another benefit of an embarrassing event is it prompts us to prepare. To avoid experiencing the embarrassing situation again, individuals will do more to prepare themselves to mitigate against such disaster. For example, in the new work from home world, if you accidentally leave your webcam on after thinking you have signed out, and you get up to reveal that you only half-dressed for work, you best believe you will always sign off after a meeting.
Social Values – the fear of embarrassment helps keep individuals aligned with social norms and values. This is valuable in the context of greater society, as it helps set the expectations of what behaviors we can expect from our peers.
How leaders can leverage embarrassment as a tool
Leaders can use the benefits of embarrassment to help them guide and develop their teams in more than one way. First, embarrassing events can be humiliating, which can humanize a leader. This helps break down the barriers between team members and the leader and ultimately allows for stronger connections to form.
Second, how a leader responds to embarrassment sets the tone for the type of individual they are. Are they a little self-depreciating and humorous? Or are they wildly embarrassed because of a calcified sense of self? Team members and peers alike can see and read into these reactions and will make judgement on the leader.
Finally, embarrassment’s relationship with social values can be a key tool for leaders in creating their desired culture. For example, if a Sales Manager wants her team members to embody professionalism when visiting potential clients, she may expect that her team members dress in business casual for onsite visits. If a team member decides to show up in summer shorts and a t-shirt, she may make a joke to embarrass the individual. This event may prompt the team member to never ever wear summer shorts to a client site again.
What to do when you’re embarrassed
Some of us are simply bad at dealing with public situations of humility. For us, there are simple steps that one can take to reduce the discomfort of an embarrassing situation.
Address the situation – one of the best things that one can do in an embarrassing event is to call it out for what it is. Saying things like “Well, that was awkward,” can help diffuse the situation. Better yet, it may invite other humorous comments, making the situation event lighter.
Breathe – if you’re feeling flustered and flushed in the face, practice a box breathing technique. This will help bring a sense of calm to your body, which can help reduce the physical discomfort.
Be kind – the key thing to remember about embarrassment is that it is a self-conscious emotion. Thus, practice kindness to yourself when you find yourself in an embarrassing moment. Also, afford this kindness to others. Help them diffuse their moment of embarrassment.
- Despite common wisdom that embarrassing events undermine a leader, with the right responses, a leader can turn these events into opportunities.
- Embarrassing events can be tools for helping leaders build trust with their peers and cultivate their desired culture.
- When experiencing the physical and emotional responses to a moment of embarrassment, remember to call yourself out, breathe, and be kind to yourself.
Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in human resources and leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful: