Shame in the Workplace

Futures Rambing #89

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Now that agile work is being embrace around the globe, even appearing in conservative office space typologies; the link between establishing appropriate behaviour and creating a successful work environment is all the more pronounced. Unfortunately when it comes to behaviour many workplaces are falling short because some people simply refuse to get with the program.

Bad behaviours in open office environments are on the rise and it’s high time we did something about it for the sake of the evolution of contemporary workplace. When considering why it’s so hard to convince some employees of the benefits of new ways of working, it’s not a far stretch to suggest it is a manifestation of deeply engrained habits that have built up over a life time of working, perhaps more of a stretch is to suggest adverse behaviours in the workplace are due to a sneaky neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Dopamine plays several important roles in both our brain and body, the one we are most interested in here is its function as a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. When an event happens that is rewarding or pleasurable dopamine floods the brain and it will flood the brain again at the mere expectation of that same event, if it doesn’t happen dopamine switches off and we are disappointed. It’s a vicious cycle.

Unfortunately, a variety of addictive drugs and other bad things increase dopamine neuronal activity. Appreciating the link between dopamine and cupcakes or snorting coke is easy once you appreciate what this neurotransmitter does, but linking it to people who consistently misbehave at work? Now before you start laughing, know neuroscientists suggest dopamine plays as a role in creating feedback signals for predicting reward.

Crazy as it sounds, some people find pleasure and reward by sitting in the same desk every day; and given that neuroscientists believe dopamine is to blame for the endless information seeking loop that has led many people to be addicted to their phones, it’s perhaps not such a great stretch to understand why we’re so attached to our desks! Heck a recent Forbes article went as far as to attribute dopamine to American’s addiction to guns, they said hearing the sounds of shots fired in the night released dopamine – hmmm.

Far-fetched examples aside, we can all agree the brain’s motivational system is complex, so why wouldn’t dopamine play a role in how we relate and behave in a new workplaces? Therefore, I suggest it’s high time to engage in similar tactics that are used in society to keep people in their place. Now is the time to introduce shame into the workplace.

Jennifer Jacquet would agree, she’s an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University and has authored a book titled, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (Pantheon, 2015). She suggests small groups of concerned citizens could use shame to change the behavior of big corporations and governments. Why not? Just look what a little friendly shaming about chartering helicopters did to Bronwyn Bishop.

In America the use of shame is working wonders. California uses it to combat ‘grassholes’, those are people who continue to water their lawns despite a four year drought and well publicized water bans. Governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are encouraging residents to ‘grass’ out their neighbours who violate the ban on a website, it might surprise you to learn Kim Kardashian has been outed as a grasshole.

Those crazy Californians aren’t the only ones using shame to force people to get in line, judges around the USA are handing out shame based sentences. A Cleveland judge gave a woman a choice of going to jail or spending two days standing on a street corner with a sign that read “Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

Interesting given the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, they argue shame based sentences are no worse than time in jail time and claim prison fails to cause the same kind of vivid denunciation that public shamings do. Judge Peter Miller in Putnam County Florida also believes that seeing sentences carried out publicly lets his constituents know he’s doing his job.

So if shame works for shoplifters, rotten drivers and grassholes why couldn’t it work for offenders in agile workplaces? Why not use screen savers to out employees who monopolize work settings by reserving spaces with pieces of fruit, jackets and computer bags?

Why not use permanent markers to brand the foreheads of gasbags who insist on talking loudly with an LM like they did with Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”? Forget interoffice campaigns for charity bike rides, let’s use internal social media to shame those who give coworkers the stink eye when they use spaces they think are theirs, but are meant to be shared by all.

We’re ready for this, if it works for Pope Francis it should be good enough for those of us trying to create wonderful workplaces. Hats off to the pope for his encyclical call for action on climate change, ditto on his comments regarding refugees. If he can think differently so can we.


Bell, Vaughn; “The Unsexy Truth about Dopamine”; The Guardian; May 22, 2014

Choney, Suzanne and Popkin, Helen; “Yet Another Study Confirms Your Tech Addiction”; February 4, 2012

Devitt, James; “Is Shame Too Mean or a Tool for Change?” Futurity Website, posted June 16, 2015.

Korn, Christoph; “Brain Gain, Dopamine, Emotions and Behaviour Change”; Scientific American, January 10, 2015

Morrison, Pat; “Is Public Shaming Fair Punishment?” LA Times, May 24, 2014.

Weinschenk, Susan; “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google”; Psychology; posted September 11, 2012

“Day in the Life of Hollywood’s Grassholes” The Sunday Times,


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