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Aukje Nauta: 'Shame in the workplace can lead to stress, conflict and even burnout'

Aukje Nauta's professorship at Leiden University, brought about by by training institute Sioo, has been extended for another five years. She will further research how connectedness in the workplace helps people to be their full self and perform better. Her conviction: for a healthy work culture, we need to be willing to feel a bit more ashamed from time to time.

In the past few years, Aukje Nauta dug through countless articles and books, spoke to hundreds of people at her lectures and workshops, and analyzed experiences from her own life. This is how she discovered that when dealing with employees, companies and organizations often overlook a crucial emotion: shame.

Shame, Nauta discovered, is a major cause of stress, burnout complaints and festering conflicts with colleagues. Only when we recognize and transform our feelings of shame, she argues, can we solve these problems. She wrote a book about it: Nooit meer doen alsof (Never fake it again). On 16 January, she held Ernst Hijmans Lecture on the subject, an annual lecture organized by the Order of Organization Advisors. 

Aukje Nauta
Nauta at work in Leiden.

When faced with problems at work, few people think of shame as a cause. Why did you decide to focus your research on it?

'If you want to prevent stress and burnout in the workplace, it's important to have conversations with each other. Then you're connected, you can talk out conflicts and make agreements about how to improve your work. But I found out that those dialogues are often not candid. Because you're afraid to say you don't know something, or because you're ashamed that you haven't made promotion at certain age. When I discovered that, I knew: I have to write a book about shame. As a starting point for good conversations in the workplace.'

'During a meeting of the SER, I thought: now they will discover I'm a fraud' 

What has been a time where you've felt embarassed?

'When I was a crown member of the SER (the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands), I was attending a discussion on the retirement system. Someone was talking about 'the macrostable discount rate.' I had no idea what that was, and I was afraid to ask. Then they'll figure out I'm a fraud, I thought. So I kept my mouth shut and felt miserable. I kept thinking: I don't belong here. But now I'm sure that if I had said, "Um, back up a bit, what is a macrostable discount rate?", a number of people would have thought with relief: thank goodness someone is asking. That would have created an atmosphere where you can just ask 'silly' questions, and it's precisely in such an environment that employees perform better.'

Why is it so hard to for us to face our shame in this way?

'Because there rests a taboo on shame, we prefer not to talk about it. Moreover, it's inherent to shame that you want to hide from it: you're ashamed of the shame. This leaves us only two options: to run away, hide and don't talk about it. Or to get rid of it and blame everyone outside ourself. Thus, our current approach to shame can easily lead to feelings of depression or aggression. But when you look shame in the eye, when you examine where it comes from and share it, you liberate yourself from it. You then become, what I call, shame-free. You're willing to release the shame, to let it be there.'

'When managers show their vulnerability, they give others permission to do the same' 

Who holds the responsibility for this new approach: employees or employers?

'It's up to both, but I see a special opportunity for managers here. They have the most impact on a work culture. If they show their vulnerable side, they give their employees the permission to do the same. Psychological safety, currently a hot issue, benefits from making mistakes open for discussion. Also here at Leiden University, where there are examples of transgressive behavior, this is a good idea. Think of a team leader organizing a team session and saying, "I've let conflicts run a few times where I shouldn't have, and I'm sorry about that. I imagine you guys recognize that. Let's all talk about that, shall we?" Then you lift off the heaviness of the subject, and I think that's the way out to a safe work culture.'

What topic do you want to focus in your coming years as a professor?

'In society we struggle deeply with transgressive behavior, so that's what I want to focus on in the coming years: social and psychological safety. I did my doctorate on conflict management, so in that way I'm going back to my roots. But now I want to link it to shame, because I think bullies in the workplace actually experience too little shame. In the absence of shame, people start yelling, bullying, crossing boundaries. I want to explore how people can move from being shameless to being shamefull and eventually shame-free. 'The end of the bully era,' as a working title for this new research.

'Bullies in the workplace often experience too little shame'

What does that look like?

'Here at the university, I will be reading a lot of scientific literature and I will try to translate that in bite-sized chunks into practical application: in lectures, articles and books.' As Robbert Dijkgraaf, who is founding an institute for science communication, said, 'There is so much beautiful knowledge that deserves to be brought to practice.' That's what I want to do with my stories. For my lectures, I get help from a theater director, because the most wonderful research is often written down rather sober. But when you illustrate this valuable knowledge with stories from people of flesh and blood, it comes to life and you bring people into conversation. That's where my heart lies, and I am grateful that I'll keep doing this in the years to come.' 


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