In part 1 of this series, I explored how sharks are misunderstood when it comes to their introverted and peaceful natures. I discussed how we tend to think of sharks as the bad boys of the sea, ferocious ocean predators that stalk and attack innocent prey.

But the reality is very different. Sharks can teach important lessons to people who are striving to be more compassionate and mindful. Understanding shark behaviour can help us become more peaceful in the application of boundaries with others. Sharks can even teach us to be better listeners and, therefore, more resilient leaders.

In this post I will explore shame and blame as crucial and challenging work subjects. I will also explore two important shark lessons that could help us all become more resilient leaders in the face of difficult senior managers and bullies at work.

What is Shame?

Neuroscientists and attachment researchers like UCLA’s Prof Allan Schore describe shame as a naturally inhibitory influence in the development of children’s brains. As an emotion shame helps to reign in behaviour so children can understand how to exist as part of a social group, and how to be safe in the world.

That is the theory of shame. The reality of shame can be quite different.

In an instant, the feeling of shame takes us back to those hurtful moments in our past where we were embarrassed, humiliated, and somehow made to feel wrong about being ourselves. These were mostly negative lessons we experienced through caregivers, teachers and other adults where we were left feeling fearful, defective and deflated.

shame deflated woman
These destructive, shame-ridden lessons from childhood form the bedrock of fearful behaviours as an adult, can erode self-confidence, and destroy most relationships.

What We Can Learn from Sharks

Sharks and shame
In observing shark behaviour, there is an opportunity to recognise the consequences of shame. Too much shame will diminish you as a person and diminish the potential of your team. That said, there are two shark lessons that can help you deal with being shamed or blamed by a senior manager or a co-worker.

  • 1 Sharks aren’t ‘appeasers and pleasers’
  • 2 Sharks don’t try to gain power over other sharks

These lessons on shame come courtesy of researcher and storyteller Dr Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, her bestselling book on shame resilience.

According to Dr Brown, the more we shame and blame others in adulthood, the less accountable we’re being for our own actions. As she states in her research, blame has an inverse relationship to accountability.

Lesson 1: Sharks aren’t ‘appeasers and pleasers’

If you’re being shamed or even bullied by your manager, stop trying to appease and please. Shame resilience calls this ‘moving toward shame. This means you are probably in fear of your manager and trying desperately to stay on their good side.

By appeasing and pleasing, you are likely walking on egg-shells when your manager is around. By allowing this fear to grow you are only making yourself more of a future target for shame. Your shaming manager won’t respect you if you don’t respect yourself. Sooner or later, for them to respect you, you’ll need to stand up for yourself. Until then, they will likely wonder why you’re not speaking up or even challenging some of their statements and accusations.

Your lesson from sharks is to be a braver version of yourself. This will mean having very difficult conversations around workload and managing any fear, guilt or shame around those conversations. As you start setting boundaries and saying “no,” or “no, not now,” to extra workload or requests for your time you may feel fearful and guilty at first. This is a sign that you could be feeling some shame from your past. The opportunity is to increase your resilience to shame by being a bit more courageous and taking a necessary risk by speaking up and out.

Lesson 2: Sharks don’t try to gain power over other sharks

A shaming manager blames others so he can do what shame resilience calls ‘move against shame’. This means by blaming others, a manager is avoiding responsibility and is being less accountable as a leader. The reality is they feel shame also, only they don’t try to appease and please. Instead, they try to control others through shaming, blaming and bullying. They probably grew up in fear of a bully themselves, and learned to bully others rather than be bullied.

Shaming manager

Dr Brown calls this using shame to fight shame. A shaming manager uses shame to fight people. The more you cave in, the more a shaming manager will continue to try to overpower you using blame and shame. It is a bullying strategy that diminishes others so a shaming manager can feel superior.

In the shark world, this bullying behaviour is unnatural and unnecessary. Their amazing ability to read body language and understand individual boundaries allows sharks to peacefully respect one another.

Remember, sharks have thousands of jelly-filled pores that vibrate when receiving an electrical signal. This is called electroreception. Sharks are able to ‘hear’ anything moving within a two-mile radius. And, as solitary fish, sharks are natural introverts.

The Advantage of Introverts

Typically, introverts are able to listen better than extroverts because of their ability to quieten their minds and reflect on what is spoken – an important skill in leadership. So, managers who bully others will not be good listeners; they will reflect less and react more. For sharks this would be considered more of a competitive strategy than a cooperative one.

Consider that sharks have evolved by listening to each other and by reading and sensing body movements that engender cooperation rather than competition.

Great White Sharks

The Take-Away

Don’t be a punching bag for shame, or a buzz-saw of blame. You can start to manage up or manage out by following the lessons sharks teach us about resilient leadership.

If you think you’re being shamed, start to be clear about your boundaries and stand up for yourself. Make sure to speak out when you feel you or others are being shamed, blamed or bullied.

If you’re being bullied, consider keeping notes on conversations. Let a bully know he’s being watched and recorded.

If you think you are shaming and blaming others, consider being more reflective than reactive. Think about what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. Are you avoiding accountability by blaming others? Consider quieting down enough so you can listen more to what is said, rather than speaking over others.