The value of humiliation

When interviewed about the secret to American Idol’s success, Simon Cowell replied, “It’s all about the humiliation.”  He is of course referring to the early audition trainwrecks they invite in to sing for the judges, knowing full well they will be laughed at.  We used to get Paula Abdul mitigating the pain for these delusional “singers” with her sympathetic comments, but the high audience ratings show that the humiliation formula worked. It also changed the career path for many of those who received it.

I received a healthy dose of humiliation in my K-12 years. I was always an active talker when the teacher asked for participation in class, yet sometimes I didn’t exactly know when to stop. I often got punished for exercising my social skills when I was supposed to be quiet. 

Back in the 70’s, teachers came up with all kinds of creative and effective punishments to get me to stop expressing myself.  Like drawing a chalk circle 3 inches above my nose and forcing me to stand on my tip toes to put my nose in it.  I could feel my classmates’ laughter at my back as I trembled to hold a 10-minute pose.  Thank you, Mrs. Atkinson.

While gathered around the science teacher / football coach’s desk to ask questions, I couldn’t resist entertaining my friends with a few jokes.  The teacher stood up, reached over his desk and pulled me up and over by the nose (why was it always my nose?)  He said “Goad, you are disrupting the learning process. Go sit down!”  He pinched my nose so hard I had purple bruises on both sides for the next 3 days.  Imagine the lawsuit if that happened these days.  Thank you, Mr. Dougherty.

Our assistant principal had a large wooden paddle with holes drilled in it mounted on his wall like a trophy, with a plaque that said “The Board of Education.”  He only had to use it once on the first day of school.  A loud WHACK could be heard echoing down the hallway, warning us all that we could be next.  The threat was enough to keep most of us in line.  Again, it wasn’t so much about the pain, but the humiliation.  And humiliation worked. 

It worked in grade school punishment and it works today in reality show entertainment.  But how well does humiliation work in business with grown adults?  It will definitely get you short term results… if that’s all you want.  I am amazed at how some executives gather all their staff into a large room and pick one person to humiliate in front of the others.  It is absolutely motivating and absolutely destructive at the same time. 

I realize that sometimes you may have to go Simon Cowell on someone to call out the facts and get them to change their behavior, but where’s the counter-balancing effect of Paula telling you that you still have potential?  Doesn’t anyone want a long-term working relationship anymore? 

Adults do not appreciate being treated like grade school kids. Think about it… balancing your criticism with positives is a show of leadership strength, not weakness.  The business world needs a little more Paula.  Don’t you think?

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11 Comments on “The value of humiliation”

  1. Bethany Sax Says:

    David, I totally agree about needing more Paula and less Simon in business today. There are better ways to lead than using humiliation. Thanks for your thoughts. Beth

  2. Bethany Sax Says:

    PS I wonder how you turned out so positive and confident with those bullies that were in your grade school. Your home life must have counteracted it!

    • davidgoad Says:

      That’s a really good question Beth. I try to stay positive on the outside, even when I’m not feelin’ it on the inside. But I’m not sure why… need to think about that.

  3. Nora Says:

    As the “Paula” in my workplace, I appreciate the thumbs up. Of course, sometimes I need a Paula for me.

  4. Kristie Says:

    David – I feel your old school humiliation. I flunked speech in Mrs. Turner’s class because everyone snickered when I attempted the 1st assignment. I rfused to stand up in front of class the rest of the term and got my first and only “F”. A little bit of encouragement from Mrs. Turner may have changed the course of my life, but she wasn’t the type. I still get the sweats in front of any large group, especially management. Hey – who was Mrs. Atkinson? I don’t recall having a teacher with the same last name as my married name. ( : I thought that might be Mr. Alter who pinched your nose.

  5. Richie Knight Says:

    Well, many things come to mind with this one DG.

    First, your statement…”Doesn’t anyone want a long-term working relationship anymore?” American business is seldom interested in the ‘future’; the main demand is…now. What can I get…now. How much can I make…now. How do I get this employee to do what I want…now. The Chinese and Japanese look at life and business much differently…decades; centuries and millennium. Eastern thought processes have always thought long term…Western thoughts are almost always about the immediate future.

    So, we, members of Western Culture, have been ‘trained’ to think of…now. Look at how we model our lives…’instant gratification’…the norm. How often are we, Western Culture, willing to put off till tomorrow what we can ‘charge’ today.

    Second…there are different kinds of humiliation. Sure, I concur that the one where you are pointed out just for the sake of doing it is not productive. But, when you are doing things you know you should not be doing; things you have been instructed to not do in the past…there is personal responsibility on to obey. Having been around you in our early days I fully understand your teachers putting circles on the chalk board. I bet you don’t recall the myriad opportunities you received before that action was taken; you forced them to take extreme measures to control your behaviour.

    Lastly, for myself, I have the fondest memories of the men who held me to the higher standard. The men who were trying to mold me into a leader. Yes, there were times I wanted to run away and hide…but upon reflection I knew I had not done what had been requested or required of me. My lack of discipline/completion of the project or of letting my teammates down was my fault. By pointing it out to the team or the class was not the humiliation…but the knowledge that everyone now knew I had not responded properly and that I personally had let them down was.

    I am not for humiliation for the sake of humiliation. Rather, I think the humiliation is a result of my not being personally responsible. For not handling my part.

    Just my opinion, of course.

    • davidgoad Says:

      Rich you are onto something here. Humiliation is a feeling on the inside that you let down someone else, and yourself.
      And yes, I was probably warned repeatedly prior to the punishment 🙂
      What I take exception to these days is when someone is unnecessarily called out in public. Sometimes it is just laziness on the part of the leader… not willing to schedule individual time to criticize or coach. Just doing it at their convenience in a staff meeting.
      I for one don’t want my team members walking out the door muttering “F you” under their breath.

  6. Colette Says:

    Thank you for this David. I couldn’t agree with you more. I feel missed my true calling in life because of humiliation. Elementary art: when asked to draw a picture of our house, I excitedly drew an entire “floor plan layout”. That is because that was my favorite pass time as a kid, floor plans. The art teacher held up my drawing in front of everyone and told the class I had not listened to the instructions . I could of died. Then in high school I knew I really wanted to take a drafting class due to my love of design. But…the drafting class was traditionally only boys AND it was held in what we called the shop hall or FFA hall – girls need not apply. So I signed up, nervously took the long lonely walk down to the shop hall and tried to be cool. I was the only girl in the class and after a week the teacher pulled me aside and suggested I drop the class as he felt it would be too challenging for me. I did, and I regret it today. Oh humiliation!

    • davidgoad Says:

      Collette, its amazing how these seemingly small moments of truth can have such a big effect on our lives. I’m betting you turned this into a positive by encouraging your own kids to do what they love.
      I was fortunate that my parents put art supplies in my hands and encouraged me at a very young age. It may not have become a full time career, but it really kickstarted my creativity.
      Note to self: The punishments I received did not silence me, they just taught me that there’s a right time and place to entertain.
      Note to you: It’s not too late to start that drafting career if you still want it 🙂


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