Men should stop losing sleep over loss of face
Humiliation is painful and damaging but also needless
Nigella Lawson: when she gets tired of teaching the world how to make maple buttercream cup cakes she could teach puffed up MBAs how to deal gracefully with humiliation. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In the first few days of 2014 three male acquaintances separately took it upon themselves to tell me what a wretched time they were having at work. The first was distraught as he was being nudged towards taking voluntary redundancy. The second was upset by a decision that had been taken over his head, while the third complained that nothing was happening to him at all: others were being promoted and he was stuck.
To each I said what I thought. The first man should grab the money and give thanks for being paid to leave a job that he did not like anyway; the second should rise above; the third should think about looking elsewhere. Alas, such excellent advice went down badly. None of them seemed remotely mollified.
On further discussion it turned out I had made a serious and elementary mistake. What ailed all three was not the situation itself, it was what they saw as the bone-crushing humiliation that went with it. None of them was particularly interested in a pragmatic solution; what they all desperately needed was a way of stopping the pain, which meant a way of saving face.
Hoping to escape all this humiliation in the real world, I settled down to finish watching the box sets I got for Christmas. There I found Walter Barnett visiting his shrink on the fantastic In Treatment. Walter is chief executive of a company that makes baby milk; the milk gets contaminated; babies die; the shares crash; he resigns and then tries to kill himself. Afterwards it emerges that it was not just guilt about the dead babies: what he really could not cope with was the loss of face.
Even in Downton Abbey there was no break from workplace humiliation. When Mr Molesley, recently demoted from butler, is handed a pair of white gloves that he must wear in his new role as lowly footman, his expression is a study in anguish.
All these real and fictional stories inspire in me an odd mixture of compassion and impatience. I can see the pain is intense, but it leaves me wanting to shout: “GET OVER YOURSELF.” I also can’t help noticing the sufferers tend to be men, women being less susceptible to the ravages of humiliation at work. I have no data to back up this claim, only decades spent in offices and an intuitive guess at why it might be so.
Women are rather less hung up on status in the first place, and tend not to put all their eggs in the work basket, but to scatter them a bit.
If I am right, this turns on its head the popular idea that women – who are meant to be thin skinned and take all criticism personally – have the rougher ride in the office. Instead, by being less prone to humiliation, women may be more flexible and more resilient, as we don’t take it as a heinous attack on our egos every time someone fails to invite us to a routine meeting.
Not only is humiliation painful, it is also pointless. Unlike guilt or shame, both of which have a clear evolutionary purpose, humiliation has none. It does not make people behave better. Instead it leads them to make catastrophically bad decisions. My acquaintance is likely to continue to do a job he hates because he sees humiliation in leaving. Mr Molesley would almost rather have mended roads than be humiliated by demotion at Downton. And as for Walter, he takes the ultimate dud decision in trying to end his life.
As well as being painful and damaging, humiliation is also needless. The sufferer is in turmoil at the thought of his reduced status in the eyes of the world yet the world is generally too busy worrying about its own status to bother much about the slights being received by anyone else.
So what is to be done? A first and obvious step would be to stamp out nasty work practices that are expressly designed to humiliate. So no more public blaming. No black bags on desks. No shouting or bullying. Yet that alone would not solve the problem as humiliation does not just come from uncivilised management but the human condition.
The answer is to give the emotion the same sort of image makeover that has recently been given to failure, which is now deemed to be not only normal but a prerequisite for success. Every business school should teach case studies in which people get elbowed out of jobs, passed over and shamed.
There is a desperate need for humiliation role models – and luckily I have the perfect candidate. When Nigella Lawson gets tired of teaching the world how to make maple buttercream cup cakes, she could teach puffed up MBAs how to deal gracefully with even worse humiliations than the largish ones that are certain to come their way. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)