VIC 11 | Shame In Workplace


With 65% of Americans searching for new jobs, only 20% finding fulfillment in work, and 84% saying they are bringing personal trauma to work, it’s no wonder that the mindset of corporate culture continues to struggle.

Unfortunately, the conversations around shame and judgment in the workplace are not happening.

This includes the understated and often overlooked, an epidemic of growing addiction at the executive level.

In this powerful episode, KL and Tucker from Voices InCourage go into great depth on how we can start a new dialogue, change the narrative and offer insights into how business executives, leaders, and change agents can create healthier, safer, and more sustainable places to work. This is a must-see episode, check it out! 

Maybe you can be that changemaker.

Watch the episode here


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Shame And Judgement In The Workplace

I’m going to be leading the conversation with KL Wells. We are going to shift gears a little bit. KL and I have been talking about this for quite some time. We feel like it’s a topic that needs to be heard, discussed, and embraced. We could probably come up with about 50 verbs to attach to it but we want to dive into it a little bit more. You said something, KL, that I like.

It’s the fact that shame and judgment are alive and well in the halls of Corporate America. When we think about that, we are going to dive into some more behind that, especially around the conversations we are not having in the workplace, whether they are silent, not having them at all or they are taboo. We are going to get into that. I’m excited to discuss that. Welcome back, KL, to the show.

Thank you.

One thing I wanted to start with is this. I’m a little bit of a research geek when it comes to thinking about things and frameworks for topics and so forth. I’m going to geek out a little bit on some research that Mental Health America puts out every year. It’s mental health in the workplace. It is incredibly telling but also very insightful. We have the data. Are we having conversations to back the data up? It’s one thing to have it and to ask for it. Those insights allude to things that we need to be discussing but we are probably not doing the right way.

Here are some of that some of those findings. We will dive right into a question for you and take it from there. As we are going through the pandemic, 65% of Americans alone in 2020 started looking for new jobs. It’s the highest rate of job search since the dot-com explosion and 9/11. Only 20% said they found purpose and delight in what they do. We are in a system where 80% of our population does not feel fulfilled, satisfied, excited, motivated, and purposefully driven in what they do.

As a result, we have talked about this. You’ve heard about the Great Resignation and all of these things but what we are not talking about are some of the mental health figures and, specifically, substance abuse figures that are coming out of it. 1 in 4 men is addicted to some substance abuse. It used to be 1 in 7 women. That is dropping down to 1 in 5.5, almost 5. The gender gap in usage and abuse is shrinking rather rapidly.

We are starting to see that a lot because of hybrid or remote workforce dynamics. There was some number that came out that 30% of women had to exit the corporate workforce to go and do some blended, remote, the house or the whole thing. That’s shifting back but now, you are finding a lot of women, “Now what? The kids are back in school.” There are these uncertain unknowns but they are shining the spotlight on some of these conversations that we are not happy. We are suffering as a nation.

Will you throw a couple more statistics in there?

Let’s go for it.

1 in 3 American families is dealing with alcoholism or addiction. The statistics that you referenced earlier relative to 20% are fulfilled by their jobs. That’s not just COVID. That was happening prior to COVID but COVID has shown a spotlight on the unrest, the unhappiness, the lack of fulfillment, and the lack of meaning in a dramatic way that now people are starting to pay attention to.

COVID showed a spotlight to the unrest, the unhappiness, the lack of fulfillment, and the lack of meaning in a dramatic way that people are now starting to pay attention to. Click To Tweet

I have been talking about these statistics for years with the corporate companies and the execs that I work with. I have been working with them to create compassionate cultures. It’s going to be fascinating to watch what companies decide to wake up and what don’t because we are now in the throes of chaos. COVID was a catalyst for the chaos. We are going to continue to be in the throes of chaos.

Throw 300 million people into the chaos machine. What do you get? You get people who are ill-prepared to navigate. They reach for the easiest things or the easy buttons of addiction, alcoholism, drugs, shopping, and all the things, so they don’t have to deal with or develop the skillsets to navigate the chaos. Personally, those statistics are not clear representations of what is going on.

If you walk around your neighborhood, I walk around my neighborhood on trash days and see the containers filled with bottles because that is generally their coping mechanism. I was talking to a colleague. There’s a podcast out there called Huberman Lab. He’s a neuroscience researcher out of Stanford. He’s super brilliant. He does these long podcasts. This colleague of mine was talking about having watched a podcast in terms of the effects of alcoholism.

We tend to think about alcoholism in particular as, “We have a few drinks and then sleep it off.” What we don’t think about is the cumulative effect over weeks, months, and years, which is staggering in terms of our mental health, brain health, physical health, emotional health, spiritual health, and all the things. We have a population that is ill-informed.

Therefore, we have the C-Suite execs that are ill-informed themselves. The other statistic that is remarkable to me, and I found this to be true when I met with one of my companies, is that 50% of our employees are walking into work every day with something that’s taking place at home that is distracting them at work. How do you think they are handling the distractions?

I will add one thing to that, KL. Over 70% don’t feel safe enough to have a conversation or feel supported in the workplace to deal with it. They have to separate church and state, which creates even more unrest within the brain.

The truth of the matter is that every exec that walks into work every day is a human being too. That’s where the conversations need to be taking place. We need to have C-Suites and executives at the highest echelons of Corporate America waking up not only to what’s going on in their workforces but in their lives. There are a ton of C-Suites that are full of alcoholics and addicts. They are not talking about it because there’s still so much shame and judgment around this. It is not recognized as the disease that it is. There’s the moral overlay and the judgment, “Why can’t you quit? If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.” The shame is so pervasive that it’s killing us.

There’s a story that you have that everyone should hear. It touches on that very notion that we still can’t talk about it. A door starts to open. Someone comes right around the corner and goes, “I don’t want to see that.” They slam it. Talk a little bit about that experience you had.

I had spent quite a number of months teeing up being able to speak at a corporate event. As far as I knew, we had teed all the T’s up and dotted all the I’s. All the things were in place. I had to go and so forth. At the last minute, it was a no-go because the powers that be up above or the decision-makers that I was dealing with nixed it. We are still not talking about this.

I was shocked and not shocked. I was disappointed that in this day and time when so many people are dealing with this and there are so many people keeping it hidden in Corporate America, C-Suites and CEO positions, and all the decision-makers, it is pervasive. CEOs in and of themselves have a 50% chance of having depression higher than everybody else. How do you think they are navigating this?

I understand we are no longer in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s when the Mad Men era is alive and well. We are in a very different era. These things impact the bottom line at such a tremendous impact. Why aren’t we talking about this? This is the evolution, I believe, in terms of emotional intelligence, compassionate cultures, and understanding that people are dealing with these diseases, whether it’s themselves or a spouse, a child, a sister or a brother.

I grew up with a mom. I grew up with a brother. I married an alcoholic and subsequently divorced him. I have a son who is a recovering addict. I am now married to a recovering alcoholic. I had my work to do to continue to up-level who I was in a relationship with and how to navigate. I have been very open with my clients and the people that I work with about my journey through this so that they would feel like they had permission to also share theirs. I cannot think of one person that does not know my story or that doesn’t have a story of their own.

I’m so glad that you brought that up because one of the things that remind me of going back down to what are the basics that we need to start that are going to help drive conversations without it being finger-pointing, feeling shameful or judgmental. I go back to the years. I’m an open recovery anxiety individual that I dealt with it for many years but the way I dealt with it was through my alcoholic behavior. We don’t have the education on the conversation or even the right language.

We go back to a few years ago. I remember growing up with so much anxiety. All I heard was, “Stop worrying so much.” It’s the same way when someone is going through a deep depression, “Why are you so sad? You don’t need to be sad. Look at all the stuff that you have. Stop being so sad.” It’s this culture where we don’t understand the physiology and the neurology behind it.

We are still in that space now with addiction, “It’s a choice.” It’s a disease. We are starting with that educational foundation or language. We have to start somewhere but we are not teaching it. You only hear about it if somebody in your family or you are going through it or whatever it is. We don’t talk about it enough. Part of it is going back to bottom-line education.

You have to choose to want to learn to see it differently than what you have been told. That’s how Voices InCourage got born. It was because I’m an avid learner and by who I am. I kept reading books, watching videos, and continuing to consume information that is the leading edge relative to brain science, trauma research, and all the things that swirl around this disease to come to the conclusion that my son isn’t a bad person.

Shaming, guilting, yelling at him, or all the things that I see a lot of parents do to try to guilt their child, adult child, or their spouse, shame them, or judge them into “getting fixed” so they can feel better and get back to their lives are a failed strategy. Most people don’t know that. It is first opening up, “There might be a different story here. Are you open to exploring and learning what is going on?” We can get to the point where we are open to learning, hearing, and listening.

It’s also challenging and/or reframing the current paradigm. I remember one of the most simple yet powerful things that I was told. You mentioned it or alluded to it. It’s not bad people doing bad things. It’s sick people trying to get healthy. That was a powerful statement in the sense of when you look at somebody who’s sick trying to get medicine, sometimes the medicine works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Addiction is not bad people doing bad things. It's sick people trying to get healthy. Click To Tweet

When it’s bad medicine, oftentimes, we choose to ignore it and try to look for good medicine. There are so many analogies that we can go through but part of it is that many people don’t want to look in the mirror, even corporations. If something goes wrong, “We don’t want to look in the mirror. Let’s go ahead, put that underneath the carpet, try and move on, and forget about crisis management. Let’s move forward.”

There is a tremendous amount of denial that exists at the level that it exists. People who are ill-equipped to navigate this would rather turn a blind eye until sometimes it becomes personal to them. With 1 in 3 American families dealing with this, it’s probably coming your way in some form or fashion. I remember back when I was growing up. You would find people who had cancer and then find more people that had cancer. Pretty soon, cancer became a regular thing.

When my brother was diagnosed with cocaine addiction, I don’t remember talking to anyone in my circle that was dealing with this or was willing to admit it. When I talk to people, as soon as I tell my story and open the door for others to tell their stories, there’s story after story, particularly with the opioid pandemic and fentanyl crisis that we are dealing with. We have hit such a level of crisis that’s at a magnitude that people either don’t want to see or don’t understand. They want to turn a blind eye, judge, and shame until it becomes their issue.

We have identified where some of these pain points are and where this call state of the office is. Let’s pretend That a C-Suite executive comes to us and says, “I know it’s a problem. I’ve not addressed it. It’s not because I don’t want to. I don’t know how to.” Let’s talk a little bit about moving into solution-based thinking, “Where do we help C-Suite executives start?” If we talk about an evolutionary process, we have identified a problem but where do we start?

First, it’s at home. Honestly, I don’t know any CEO at this point or a president of a company that does not know someone. I want to know their story first because I do believe that when it becomes personal, and they have the ability to share their story, then there’s a different window in. The conversation takes on a level of magnitude and vulnerability that I believe is important to be in the mix.

I have worked with, talked about, and trained on how you hold the space without judgment and with no personal agenda to be able to hear those stories so that people feel safe psychologically. That’s the first step. Everybody who has worked with me at this point for any length of time understands that, psychologically, they are safe. I hear all kinds of things. The first thing is to create psychological safety.

I’m glad you brought that up because I had a conversation with a gentleman in his 70s. He has been in Corporate America his entire life. He retired from Corporate America and so forth. We talked a little bit about public speaking and what he has done in the past. I said, “If you had three minutes to give a business talk and you were on the floor of NASDAQ, the New York Stock Exchange or something, what would you say?”

He would say. “I do believe that the Fortune 500 is going to fail. It’s not because of a lack of business, product innovation or vision. It’s a lack of understanding of the next generation of leadership and people that are going to be helping serve your industry.” Particularly, some of these newer generations are used to growing up in these safer places.

They are used to having more honest conversations. We are going to start to see a shift from the bottom-up instead of the top-down. There’s going to be a wave when we challenge the paradigm. It’s going to be down here that’s going to be shifting and pushing upwards for that conversation to happen. It’s not going to be top-down.

I have been having these conversations for a number of years now. It’s like, “You can sell the heck out of your product, whatever it is you’ve got going on or business development but if you don’t have a workforce, what are you going to do?” If you have an unhappy workforce, they have been given permission to leave you. That’s what’s happening. COVID gave people the opportunity to reflect, think about their lives, and then say, “I’m not doing this anymore.”

VIC 11 | Shame In Workplace
Shame In The Workplace: COVID gave people the opportunity to reflect and think about their lives.


I, honest to God, had a conversation with a neighbor. She hates her job. Her boss, who is the owner of the company, is a witch. She’s like, “What do I do?” I said, “In this workforce and what’s going on collectively in the work world, you don’t have to put up with that. You can opt out.” That was an interesting conversation to give her permission to leave a job where she’s crying at her desk every day because of this terrible boss.

I’m working with a younger gentleman. He had a very similar situation. He’s only in his twenties. He is like, “I’m at this point now where I know I need the experience. I’m not the smartest person in the room. I never want to be the smartest person in the room but I completely disagree with the way it’s being run.” He walked into the office of his manager, who is a C-level person, and said, “We are doing this the wrong way.” He challenged it and said, “We should do it.” They said no. He threatened to quit. What the guy said was, “You need us more than we need you.”

He looked at him and said, “I’ve never thought I would have to do this but I’m going to quit on the spot.” The guy goes, “What are you going to do?” He’s like, “I’m going to do it on my own and do it better.” That’s not an entitled issue. Part of it was you have this entitled young Millennial coming in here. He was like, “I want to do things for the right reasons.” We are going to start to see that shift. More of the conversation is going to be forced upon them.

Otherwise, they are going to lose talent. They are not going to be able to find good talent. Here’s the other thing that I hear. Companies are being judged not necessarily on what they are producing as much as why they are doing it. Is it a great place to work at? All of a sudden, that thing that used to be at the bottom was like, “One of America’s great places to work is now closer to the top.” They want to know there’s a cultural fit before anything else. They will invest in culture first before the money. That’s going to be a shift.

It is a shift. We are in the shift. This has been talked about in the mainstream for at least 5 to 10 years. There’s a great book called Evolved Enterprise by Yanik Silver. He wrote it years ago. The premise of the book is that in the next ten years, the business imperative is going to be, “Your business needs to be about more than making money. It needs to have some positive significant social impact that serves people and the planet.” We are watching it catalytically rise. The hockey stick is beginning to take place relative to that imperative, which is driven by people who have a different paradigm around what matters in the world as a society and as a planet.

It’s all connected here in terms of sticking your head in the sand relative to addiction and alcoholism. It’s all the same thing. We need to be having conversations about the social fabric that’s taking place. The pandemic of addiction and alcoholism is one of the major red flags that our society is raising that’s saying, “This isn’t working.” Still, the majority of Corporate America is putting its head in the sand because they don’t want to see it. They are going to be the ones that are not here in 10 to 20 years.

Let’s start at home, understand it, and get practice with an understanding some of the storytelling behind it but also feeling the feelings and going through what you need to go through to show up authentically at work because if you can’t show up authentically, the conversation is not going to happen. The other thing, honestly, is taking a courageous leap of faith and understanding that employees want to be seen and heard. They want to feel safe. They want to feel as though they are in an environment where they can be held and aren’t just work courses. Part of that is not being afraid to have the conversation but jumping into it.

That requires us to lead. That requires us to become leaders of leaders in having these vulnerable conversations that involve us personally because that’s where we get our credibility when we tell our stories, and then the doors open. You were going to tell a story.

One of the things I was going to say was that I didn’t know all of the individuals that I worked with now years ago. They didn’t know me years ago. I know for a fact that years ago, they wouldn’t have been working with me. I love that fact because most of my business development has come from storytelling and being very honest and vulnerable. Understanding that trust that’s built immediately is so much more powerful than trying to prove a balance sheet.

It goes back to this. As humans, we buy on emotion and justify it with logic. We have it completely backward. We are trying to create all this logical thinking and leaving the emotion out of it. It’s hard to create that synergy or that trusted relationship. To your point, how do we lead differently? We lead with a different voice. Instead of how many followers we have, it’s how we can lead with empathy so that people that do follow us are speaking the same language. That’s where the groundswell starts. It’s being able to adopt, speak, and embrace the same language.

Humans buy on emotion and justify it with logic. Now, we have it completely backward. Humans try to create all this logical thinking and leave the emotion out of it. Click To Tweet

Leading is giving other people permission to step into the truth about their journeys. My work is to give people permission to tell the truth about their lives and what’s going on in their lives so that they have at least one safe place. I refer a lot of my clients to counselors too because I’m not a counselor but I do hold the space for them. What we talk about is the difference between a therapeutic space and a therapy space. I’m the therapeutic space. I love my clients, and they know it.

They know that they are safe with me because a lot of them know my story already. They know that I’m going to be genuine and authentic with them and reserve whatever judgment they are getting from the outside world. I don’t live in the world of shame and blame. To have a safe place like that, which is not part of the room that we sit in, is super powerful. Part of my work is training those execs so that they can create those spaces for their employees.

Here’s a meeting I had. This is a manufacturing company. I’m meeting with two of the execs that come in, the COO and CEO. They walk in and go, “Our employees are having crises all over the place.” It’s not a large company but 50% of their employees had a story for each one of them. There’s a wife with cancer and a wife who lost a baby. This kept going on and on.

What I loved about it was that I have been working with them for about six years. They created a safe enough place where their employees could tell their stories. They knew what was going on. They are wanting to know, “How else do we support them in the midst of these crises that they are dealing with while also running a company?”

I’m glad you brought that up because I have a very similar story. I was working with a woman. She’s a team director at Microsoft. It’s a male-dominated industry but she was a woman leading the team of eight. She said it was so dysfunctional that she wanted to leave. I said, “What was making it dysfunctional?” “It’s the lack of trust, finger-pointing, people not communicating well, and the whole thing.” I said, “Tell me a story.” She goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “Tell me a story in your life that changed the trajectory of where you are now or that had the greatest influence.”

She started talking about her nonverbal daughter. At 21 years old, she has never spoken a word. I said, “Are you comfortable sharing more about yourself with your team?” She goes, “Yes.” She has eight people. I said, “For eight weeks, you rotate each team member for the first five minutes of your weekly meeting. They tell a story.” She got up there and told her story. A woman started to cry. She goes, “I have a nonverbal son.” All of a sudden, the entire thing changed. I still get the chills when I hear this.

Another gentleman got up there and said, “If I weren’t here, I would be snowboarding. Every single day, I would be snowboarding.” He’s now snowboarding with one of the other team members. All it took was five minutes out of their day. Productivity went up. Workplace satisfaction went up. Their numbers went up. All of a sudden, she went in for a review. I’m like, “What are you doing differently?” “We are telling stories and changing the dialogue, the language, and the narrative.” That changed the entire thing. Imagine if we started having those vulnerable conversations and opening up. That’s what it does.

This is the power of social connection. At work, generally speaking, Corporate America has not figured this out. It’s that social connection in a way that matters like these stories that you relayed. It matters that we know who each one of us is. That’s what matters to us most. When I start working with companies and have the opportunity to work with the C-Suite, one of the first things I do is have each one of them tell me what they love to do in their free time.

I will always invariably ask, “Did anybody know this?” They go, “Nope.” Once the windows are into who we are as human beings, and we recognize each other as human beings and somebody who loves their family, backpacking or snowboarding, or they’ve got a child who is nonverbal, all these things drop the veneer of a job title. I own three businesses. I’m not just a CEO. I’m a person first. These are all ways to allow for social connections to happen that are built on authenticity and genuineness and how to have conversations with people.

What I’m finding is that there are going to be people who do not want to do this. I know some of these people but not for long. I don’t work with them but when they are ready, I am open to a conversation. It’s the ones that are willing to think about this differently and understand what’s going on. It frees them personally to be a different type of leader that is more aligned with who they are as human beings.

Let’s wrap up with this. What would be a parting comment to an executive or a C-level individual? What would you leave them with?

First and foremost, think about your life and your stories and multiply that by the number of execs that you work with or the number of employees that you have. Everybody has a story. If you are the type of leader, who is willing to have the courage to lead in a different way and be vulnerable to share a story, the transformation of yourself, your execs, and your company is going to blow your mind. Given the fact of the societal issues that we are dealing with now, it is a business imperative. You no longer have the choice to turn a blind eye and be cold and reserved and don’t care because, at some point, you will not have a workforce to create the wealth you think you want.

VIC 11 | Shame In Workplace
Shame In The Workplace: If you are the type of leader willing to have the courage to lead in a different way and be vulnerable to share a story, the transformation of yourself, your executives, and your company will blow your mind.


I will add one little thing to that. I love the way you said that. Start connecting people to people instead of people to the work because when you start connecting people to people, the work will find them. I find that they are often pushing people to more productivity and this or that, “Connect to the work.” They are not connecting to one another. There can be emotional intimacy at work in a way that’s very productive and healthy but we are so focused on work well-being that we are not focused on employee workplace well-being.

The paradigm has to shift. Work well-being is no longer what you thought it was. Work well-being is when you have employee well-being. We have got to change the story and be open to changing the story and exploring what’s taking place here. It takes courage. I encourage all my execs to recognize the courage that it takes and figure out the skillset because a lot of them need to learn the skills to be able to do the things that we are talking about here. I didn’t grow up knowing how to do this. This is all skill development on my part. I continue to perfect those skills because I know the magnitude and importance of that as a human being but also as a coach, exec, and somebody who wants to make a dent in the universe.

Rather than fear it, celebrate it.

What happens is that once you free yourself, you free yourself. It’s such an extraordinary feeling not to have to put on the armor or the facade and do all the dancing to the right and the left that goes along with it. It’s freeing.

Welcome to freedom. KL, thank you for the conversation. We need more of it. Let’s agree that this is part one of a series of conversations. These are the conversations that we want to have and start to create more of a groundswell within the workplace. Thank you for being honest and open and telling more of your story as we continue to learn how we can best serve our community. Thank you all for reading. We will all talk to you soon.

Thanks, Tucker, for teeing this up. This was a rich conversation. We will do this again.


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