Rising tides of guilt and shame

In previous posts I have been reflecting on the function of guilt, shame and humiliation in organisations, and in this post I am exploring the thinking of the sociologist Norbert Elias in relation to these topics. For Elias the very structures of our personalities have arisen from the social processes which we form and are forming us at the same time, and affect is likely to arise strongly in our relationships with others as a direct result of the way our personalities are formed.

Elias has written about the civilising influence of increasing numbers of people  trying to coordinate their actions as well as compete, which has  lead to a move away from settling disputes by means of the immediate expression of affect, or even violence. Greater advantage is to be gained by increased self control. As societies developed, more and more people became more dependent on each other more of the time. The diminishing of the external threat of violence and the need for greater mutual attunement led to a change in personality structure towards an internally-generated form of self control operating both consciously and unconsciously. Increasing social interdependence can only function if the individual can control herself in her relations with others, and this is a mechanism that begins to be instilled in us as social beings from a very early age through parenting and education. It operates both self-consciously and blindly as a part of our social conditioning in ways over which we only have limited control.

Because of increased attunement to growing numbers of others, individually and collectively we have developed the ability to take what Elias refers to as a ‘detour via detachment’. This is the capacity to reflect on different courses of action that we might take and assess their consequences in relation to others so that we might exercise self-restraint. Using both hindsight and foresight, we distance ourselves from our immediate affective reactions to situations in which we find ourselves. This kind of self-restraint affords greater social advantage as people manoeuvre to advance their own plans over the plans of others. It has also led to the possibility of the development of scientific thinking as we have gradually learned to control our initially overwhelming affective reactions to natural phenomena; Elias refers to the latter as magical-mythical thinking. Previously we might have ascribed mystical agency to frightening natural events. Increasingly, the development of scientific forms of enquiry arising out of a greater propensity for detachment has enabled more durable, reality congruent explanations of natural phenomena to be formulated. Over time these forms of knowledge become independent of the groups of people who develop them and become autonomous, useful to increasing numbers of people seeking reality-congruent explanations of the world.

At the same time as we have developed the capacity of greater detachment we are also subject to feelings which operate blindly, ‘a wall of deep-rooted fears’ instilled in us in the socialisation process that prevents us from causing offence to socially acceptable behaviour. Elias refers to the ‘rising tide of guilt and shame’ that develops in us in direct proportion to the decreasing threat of external physical control. We learn to subordinate our own impulses more or less successfully. The parenting and educational process which are aimed at curbing excesses of impulse and affect are always imperfect, and thus Elias argues, the process is never without pain and always leaves scars. The patterning of these scars continues to affect adults throughout their lives, if, in coming into conflict with others they open up the wounds that they socialisation process has left. The imperfect socialisation process induces feelings which operate unconsciously, and they often produce collisions with social reality. Pushed and pulled by our own emotions and compulsions, and the automatically instilled self-governance processes into which we are socialised, we bump up against others who are in the same position as we are. If we think that we can control this interaction with appeals to reason or objectivity, Elias argues, we are significantly missing the point.

The significance of what Elias is saying for managers and consultants is the realisation of the inevitability of provoking strong feelings in other people as part and parcel of the process of managing and consulting. There is no avoiding becoming entwined in both affect and reason as we work out how to go on together, since we are both involved and detached at the same time. Becoming more skilful as a manager or consultant will depend partly on our becoming more detached about our involvement through reflection and reflexivity.


2 thoughts on “Rising tides of guilt and shame

  1. tmsamericas

    Hello Chris… I like this post very much as I do Elias’s work and I am wondering about the very last sentence.

    To me it gives the impression that by developing the capacity to become more detached would enable us to become more skilful as a manager, at least partly. Would this not then lead to even greater tension with the affect driven feelings we experience which resist resolution or integration by more rational, detached means?

    Sometimes, it seems no amount of reflection or rational reasoning, at least in the short term, can offset the effects of our affects so to speak. Would not another helpful capacity for a manager to develop be to let their affective response have its own justified existence, even if it is not expressed? I think at times we can equate reflection as a process of ‘dealing with’ our feelings with the assumption that some of those feelings are bad to have.

    An affective response, a feeling, as you point out, will come from our extensive experiences over time and emerge without conscious thought. They really have no attributed value until we think about them. Perhaps if we could hold on to this point and not attribute value too quickly to our feelings we would be a little less hard on ourselves and possibly build much more capacity for reflection and reflexivity.

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      I think I see what you mean but do not intendthe idea of detachment as a way of ‘dealing with feelings’. I am trying to get at what Elias was pointing to in his idea of involvement and detachment. That is to say we are never fully inolved nor fully detached (thus overcoming the dualism of subjective/objective) but can become more detached about our involvement. For Elias this is how we have achieved greater reality congruence in our dealings with nature, and he was optimistic enough to think that this might also be possible in human affairs. This was, after all, a man who fought in the first WW and had to flee Germany during the second.


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