The young analyst at a financial firm was so proud of himself that he boasted to his co-workers about what he had just done. Needing an answer to a pressing question, he’d sent an email inquiry directly to someone in the C-suite for help.

The entry-level analyst thought he was displaying leadership and initiative, so he was crestfallen when his manager gently reprimanded him in front of the group for breaking ranks and bothering an executive with minutia. Still embarrassed by his faux pas days later, he sent his boss a private email to apologize and ask for mentorship in learning office protocol.

When Rebecca (Becky) Schaumberg, a Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, heard the story about the analyst, she nodded her head in understanding. She studies shame and how it shapes behaviors in a business setting. It’s the focus of her most recent paper, titled “Shame Broadcasts Social Norms: The Positive Social Effects of Shame on Norm Acquisition and Normative Behavior,” which was published in the journal Psychological Science.

“Pride and shame are critical emotions,” she said, describing the simultaneous feelings experienced by the analyst. “We feel pride when we think we did something that’s valued. But shame is a pang that makes you feel like your [sense of] belongingness is not as secure as you thought.”

In the paper, which was co-authored with Samuel Skowronek, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who earned his PhD at Wharton, the scholars contend that shame is so overwhelmingly negative that it acts as a positive force for social cohesion. When someone in the office is shamed for speaking out of turn in a meeting or bungling a big presentation in front of a client, for example, others see that and quickly adapt to avoid the same mistakes and the same terrible feelings of shame.

“We are socialized not to show shame or express it because it is an emotion that is often associated with lower status.”— Rebecca Schaumberg

Changing Office Culture

For managers who want to establish or reset their office culture, it is imperative for them to understand shame and the powerful role it plays in human behavior, Schaumberg said.

“Organizations are inherently interested in aspects of normative control. Shame has a major influence on this. It affects what people do and what they will avoid doing,” she said. “Shame can be something that aligns people to organizational goals, or it can be something that creates problems. That is why it is critical to attend to.”

She encouraged managers to think about the emotions that drive their organizational culture. What do employees feel below the surface? What has become a source of shame or pride for them at work? What governs their behavior in the office, or with clients, or in the larger community as a representative of the firm?

“Being able to ask those questions will reveal the sometimes hidden or less overt norms that people are attempting to adhere to,” Schaumberg said.

Learning Culture Through Shame: A Personal Journey

Most past studies on shame have focused solely on the person who is experiencing it, but Schaumberg’s paper is one of the first studies to examine shame from the perspective of others. The authors also believe it helps settle a longstanding academic debate about whether and how shame affects social cohesion. Across five controlled experiments, they determined that shame does indeed broadcast social norms, quietly influencing people to fall in line in order to spare themselves the same ostracism or censure.

“We are socialized not to show shame or express it because it is an emotion that is often associated with lower status,” Schaumberg explained. “It’s not as though we don’t feel it or it doesn’t exist — it’s just invisible. It’s there, it’s operating and it’s affecting us, but we don’t label it and don’t name it.”

The professor first became interested in studying shame’s effects when she was living in her husband’s native country of Germany. He was working there for a while, so she split her time between the U.S. and Munich. She had never lived abroad for an extended period before and soon realized that shame was forcing her to adapt to subtle cultural norms — like not walking in a bicycle lane or making sure to recycle properly.

“Those aren’t norms I was socialized to adhere to. I was thinking it was a really powerful thing that I could change my behavior because of shame,” she recalled.

That experience was followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which got Schaumberg thinking about how shame entered the collective consciousness in a different way. As she was running her first pilot study for the paper during the early days of the pandemic, she observed how some people in the U.S. shamed others for wearing masks or social distancing, which sharpened the divide over the virus.

“I wish we had more words to describe the shame experience.”— Rebecca Schaumberg

In the paper, she and Skowronek conclude that shame is “qualitatively different” from other negative emotions like anger or sadness because of its intensity.

“Belongingness is one of the most fundamental drives of human beings,” she said. “Shame is thought to help monitor and protect us against social devaluation. I expected it to be strong, and it was uniquely strong in the information that it conveyed about what was socially appropriate or inappropriate in a novel context.”

Schaumberg was referring to the five experiments they created for the study. In one study, participants were given written descriptions of a behavior that an employee engaged in at work and shown photos of different emotional responses from the employee (portrayed by an actor). The participants were then asked what they inferred from the information and how likely they would be to engage in similar behavior. In another study, participants were given a simulated text conversation in which one friend is telling another about the consequences of negotiating with a supplier without consulting the team. Participants are then asked to infer workplace norms based on what they read.

“We show that people infer what is normatively appropriate from other people’s expression of shame, and they do that more so than with other emotions,” Schaumberg said. “They are less likely to engage in that behavior, even if it costs them.”

A Unique Perspective on Shame Culture

Schaumberg wants to continue her investigation into shame and the role it plays in behavior, saying the study “is just the beginning.” She’d like to measure the consequences of witnessing active shaming and how people react to the person who is inflicting the shame — something the current paper does not explore.

Schaumberg also noted a limitation in her study, which is that it examines shame only in the United States, where the feeling is often subverted and hard to measure. Other cultures experience and express shame differently, but it’s more difficult for Americans to give voice to whether they are feeling a momentary self-consciousness or a deeper, formative pain.

“I wish we had more words to describe the shame experience,” she said. “In other cultures where shame plays a more overt role, there are more words, and that makes it easier to describe that specific experience. When people here experience shame, they might say they feel uncomfortable. If we had better words, we might be able to see the impact in our daily lives better than we do now.”