Why Leaders Should Feel Embarrassed

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.

Key takeaways

  • 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.

Related Readings

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:

Recommended Resources:

Uncover your strengths and weaknesses with our complimentary assessment. Boost your effectiveness at work and with your team.

Free Resource Library: Access our extensive collection of valuable resources for instant support in your personal and professional growth.

Explore Our Course Library:

Enhance your leadership skills with our diverse selection of courses. Take your abilities to the next level and become a more effective leader and team player.


Our Clients Love the Professional Leadership Institute

Your team will, too! Check out some reviews from our students.
The PLI program was invaluable to our network.
The range of topics delivered, the open dialogue, experience, and examples that PLI brought to each session were outstanding and provided a path for our Franchisees and Managers to look at leadership, coaching, and connecting with their teams in a new light. Many have implemented these strategies in their bakeries and have seen immediate results.
Michelle C.
COBS Bread
Highly recommend to help your team move forward
We have locations around BC and Alberta, so getting people on the same page can be very difficult... Until now. Our entire management team and location managers take the same great courses and then meet monthly online with our coach to apply it to our situation. People are engaged, the courses are excellent, we love our coach, and we are all learning together!
Jason Fawcett
President, Kelson Group
The result has been a transformation of our culture. 
We decided to implement PLI's strategies across the country in over 150 locations and over 3500 employees.  The result has been a transformation of our culture.  People's lives have been positively impacted - professionally and personally.  Morale is high and sales and profits are up as a result.
Daryl Verbeek
Daryl Verbeek
We’ve learned how to fix ongoing personnel issues once and for all
The roadmap laid out set our business up to quintuple in sales.  We've learned how to fix ongoing personnel issues once and for all, attract top talent, and spend our time focused on results, not internal staffing problems.  I highly recommend PLI to you - it's worked for us!
John DeJong
Satisfied Client
I had no idea that running a business could be this fun!
In less than 18 months of working with Trevor, he has transformed my business from being average to exceptional, where mediocrity is not acceptable, where being great is standard.  Working with PLI has allowed me to realize my dream of not simply owning a job, but owning a business.
Justin Bontkes
Principal, Caliber Projects
Our culture has taken major steps forward this year
Our culture has taken major steps forward this year with Trevor’s help.  He is funny, relatable, and his tools are very very practical and have helped us focus and upgrade our teams throughout our retail network. Trevor recently spoke to an employee group, and one person remarked, “I could listen to Trevor all day.”   We would highly recommend Trevor.
Stan Pridham
Founder, KMS Tools
The results have been remarkable
At first, we resisted, “This just won’t work with a law firm.” But we persisted and the results have been remarkable: our client base and profits have steadily improved, and staff engagement and morale is the healthiest its ever been.
Doug Lester
Partner, RDM Lawyers
Helped our fast-growing business become what it is today
I've experienced PLI's approach first hand and it's been crucial to sustaining our growth.  I can't imagine a business that wouldn't benefit greatly from his help.
Brian Antenbring
Founder, TEEMA
Provided practical ways to make positive changes
Trevor was incredibly well-received by the entire organization. He was able to articulate people issues that many of our franchisees were experiencing and provided them with practical ways to make positive changes. We have implemented the Star Chart tool across the organization and see it as vital to building happy, effective teams.
Aaron Gillespie
President, COBS Bread
Scroll to Top

Start Learning Today

For Individuals

Unlock your potential and accelerate your career with sought-after management and leadership skills.


Transform Your Organization

For Teams

Book a consultation to discuss your challenges and discover how we can help you build a winning team.


Sign Up For Weekly Tips!

Get Weekly Coaching Tips Straight To Your Inbox Every Monday.