Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

'The Fact That She Just Looked at Me.' - Narrations on Shame in South African Workplaces

Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

'The Fact That She Just Looked at Me.' - Narrations on Shame in South African Workplaces

Article excerpt

'It is no shame at all to work for money.' (African proverb)


The focus on disruptive workplace behaviours, such as bullying (workplace mobbing), workplace incivility and disruptive behaviour (Purpora, Cooper & Sharifi, 2015), intimidation in the workplace (Rosenstein, 2015), perceived workplace discrimination (Gassman-Pines, 2015) and other behaviours as summarised by (Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy & Alberts, 2007) as abusive language use, intimidation tactics, racial discrimination, ethnic jokes or sexual comments have been emphasised in research. Shaming has been defined as one form of disruptive behaviour (Felblinger, 2008) described as an important intimate emotion that involves the negative evaluation of the self in the context of others (Tracy & Robins, 2004). Negative evaluated emotions within the work context might impact negatively on mental health and well-being. It has recently been argued that shame needs to be recognised with regard to its positive potential and as a health resource in societal and psychological contexts (Mayer & Tonelli, 2017; Vanderheiden & Mayer, 2017). However, this is only possible, if individuals and organisations recognise the perceived disadvantages and advantages of shame and are prepared to work with it constructively (Mayer, 2017).

Shame is often used as a (negative) motivator in organisations to enforce socio-cultural norms (Stiles, 2008). However, it might not be a sustainable strategy in organisations, due to the potential negative impact of shame regarding eroding self-esteem, self-worth and agency within individuals and organisations (Sen, 1985; Zavaleta Reyles, 2007). Sen (1985) argued in his capability approach that a basic capability or freedom in life is the ability to 'go about it without shame'. The statement has become a key sentence in human development research and freedom of shame has also been argued for in organisational contexts, due to shame's negative impact on mental health and career development (Wittenberg, 2016).

Human development and the increase of capability in individuals and organisations are important goals which matter in terms of creating mental health, freedom, constructive social relations, equality and positive and healthy work conditions. Therefore, it is important to nurture the ability to go about without shame in developing psychological mental health and subjective well-being (Alkir & Santos, 2009) in organisations.

The South African (SA) society suffers from a mental health and a human rights gap which urgently needs to be addressed (Burns, 2011). At the same time, employees struggle with redefinitions of social identities and transformation issues within organisations (Booysen, 2007) and are prone to high occupational stress levels, ill-health and low organisational commitment (Viljoen & Rothmann, 2009).

The topic of shame, as one of the assumed underlying issues which need to be addressed in SA workplaces, has hardly been researched (see Mayer & Ley, 2016; Mayer & Tonelli, 2017). Shame in the SA society has been studied mostly regarding HIV (Kalichman et al., 2005) and sexual violence (Fleming & Kruger, 2013). Mayer and Ley (2016) and Mayer and Tonelli (2017) focused on exploring shame in SA workplaces and highlighted that shame impacts negatively on individual's personal self-evaluations. At the same time, often shame in SA organisations is used as a strategy to uphold ethics and morals (Mayer & Ley, 2016).

Shame has been studied internationally in the workplace, such as in schools (Ahmed & Braithwaite, 2015; Mazzone, Camodeca, & Salmivalli, 2016; Stearns, 2015), in higher education institutions (HEIs) (Burke, 2015; Loveday, 2015) and in clinical or therapeutic settings (Stubbs & Soundy, 2013). Thematically, shame in the workplace is connected to topics of pride and bullying (Ahmed & Braithwaite, 2015). Findings show that bullying often results in feelings of shame which last longer than the bullying itself (Brousse et al. …

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