The other day I was listening to an Unlocking Us podcast episode on shame and accountability. It struck me how many managers use shame, perhaps unintentionally, as a performance management tool.

Let’s start by level-setting the two terms I’m talking about. Merriam-Webster defines shame as, “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” They define accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.’’

Shame personalizes the issue. The focus is no longer on what happened but rather on who did it. Shame can take it one step further by assuming we know why the person did what they did, and the why tends to be a character flaw. The goal of shame shifts the attention from looking to address the issue to trying to make the person feel bad.

Therein lies the problem with using shame as a management tool. Not only do we not effectively address the issue, but we also demoralize the employee. Then we wonder why turnover is high, engagement is low, and our employees are reticent to take risks and innovate. The opposite tends to be true when we effectively hold people accountable. The focus is on constructively addressing the gap between expectation and outcome.

Let’s use the example of tardiness to illustrate the difference. The manager who uses shame to performance manage might say something like, “Why can’t you figure out how to get here on time?” In more blatant iterations, I’ve heard managers say things like, “maybe if you stopped hitting snooze, you’d be on time.’ This person walks away feeling badly about themselves and no real plan has been put in place to remedy the tardiness.

Conversely, the conversation a manager who uses accountability as a performance management tool might sound something like this. “Brian, I wanted to speak with you because I’ve noticed a pattern of tardiness. As you know, the start time is 9 am, and it’s important that you be here on time as we start the day with an all-hands meeting to discuss the day’s priorities. When you’re not here on time, it puts the burden on the team to cover your work and get you up to speed when you do arrive. This takes away from their ability to do their jobs. If there is anything that’s impeding your ability to arrive on time that I can help with, please let me know. Otherwise, the expectation is that you arrive on time.”

This latter example treats the employee with dignity and respect while holding them accountable for their behavior. It helps to create an environment where employees trust that issues will be addressed in a professional manner.

There is a saying, “Treat others how they want to be treated.” I can’t imagine any of us would want to be made to feel badly about ourselves.