The Toxic Culture of Scarcity

Here’s a quick exercise: consider the negative thoughts that you experience regularly, the ones that keep you up at night or become intrusive when things aren’t going the way you’d hoped. Chances are, the majority follow the same formula: I’m not ___ enough.

Our culture tends to focus on lack. Social media especially has a tendency to leave us feeling inadequate. Every day is a constant struggle to “measure up” to some arbitrary metric of success. Being in a leadership position can intensify these fears, and can result in leaders inadvertently creating a culture of fear and shame within their organizations.

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown explains that “the greatest casualties of a scarcity culture are our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.” When leaders aren’t willing to acknowledge and embrace their vulnerabilities, they tend to create workplaces that exhibit the following features:

1. Shame. In the worst cases, managers will try to control employees by making them feel less-than when they don’t meet expectations. They may even resort to toxic behaviors like favoritism and name-calling. This creates anxiety, which results in disengagement and even greater diminishment in employee productivity and performance. At the other end of the spectrum, some well-intentioned managers will create incentives based on performance that send the message that self-worth is tied to productivity. All of these strategies rely on shame as a primary motivator and are thus counterproductive.

2. Comparison. While some competition can be healthy, a workplace where everyone is evaluated based on the same “ideal” standard or where employees are intentionally pitted against each other for bonuses or other rewards is not. Creativity and innovation happen when everyone is recognized for their unique talents and contributions and where employees aren’t ashamed to learn from their failures.

3. Disengagement. Shame and comparison eventually lead to disengagement and ultimately high employee turnover. If your team is primarily motivated by their fear of making a mistake, you cannot expect them to be creative or innovative. You also cannot expect them to stick around when a better offer comes along.

Organizations that take a scarcity approach to management cannot flourish. If you’ve been experiencing issues with lack of employee engagement, difficulty acquiring talent, or “brain drain,” perhaps it’s time to reflect on your leadership style. Are you leading wholeheartedly, or are you so afraid of failure that you’re unable to focus on anything else? Are you using shame as a motivator, or are you encouraging your team to experiment, make mistakes, and learn from them?

If you think you might be leading with a scarcity mindset, it may be time to talk to a coach. If you’d like to start a conversation, you can reach me via my websiteLinkedIn and Twitter. I look forward to hearing from you.

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