Taking Shame Out of the Game

Kim Scott
2 min readDec 1, 2023

It’s important that the person whose bias has been disrupted is treated respectfully–and equally important that they respond with respect. But these are hard moments. Most people feel deeply ashamed when their biases are pointed out. Our fight or flight instincts are activated. We rarely respond well in such moments. How can leaders help themselves and their employees learn to respond when their biases are pointed out like the respectful colleague they aspire to be?

If we are going to disrupt bias, the only way out of these feelings of shame is through. The solution is to work out a shared norm for responding.

“Thank you” is a good place to start. But it doesn’t go far enough. If the person who said or did the biased thing understands why what they said or did was biased, they can say “You’re right, I’m sorry, thank you for pointing it out.”

This can be tricky because sometimes a person or a whole team may be trying to change a deeply ingrained habit of speech. That will take time. If your team is working on saying simply “you” instead of “you guys”, it may be useful to have a jar into which people put a pebble when they make a mistake.

If the person doesn’t understand or disagrees, they should know to say something like “Thanks for pointing it out, but I don’t understand why what I said was biased. Can someone explain it to me after the meeting or send me an article to read?” This is hard. When I’ve been in that situation I’ve felt doubly ashamed–I harmed someone and I’m ignorant. Having a norm to fall back on in such moments reassures me that I’m not so alone–it’s a norm because it’s not uncommon for us to harm each other without even being aware of it. And it reminds me that I want to be aware so I don’t do it again.

The reason not to discuss it in the meeting is that bias happens so often that meetings would get derailed if these conversations happened every time it occurred. At the risk of repeating myself, the goal here is to disrupt the bias without disrupting the meeting.

Of course, at times the meeting should be disrupted. If someone on a promotion committee, for example, is objecting to someone’s promotion for reasons that feel biased, then the promotion decision shouldn’t be made without resolving the basis of the objection. If you don’t do this, bias gives way to discrimination.

In order to make this norm a reality and not merely an aspiration, start with yourself. Disrupt your own biases whenever you notice them. Or ask the people on your team who are most comfortable challenging you to disrupt your biases in a meeting. Lead by example with your response. Thank them for pointing it out. Reaffirm that this is how you as a team will change destructive patterns of thought or speech.

In this episode, Wesley and I discuss bias disruption. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts, or here: https://www.justworktogether.com/podcast-season-2



Kim Scott

Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor & Just Work. She is co-founder of Radical Candor, Inc which helps teams put the ideas from the book into practice.