Surviving Workplace Embarrassment

By Joe Pisicolo


At work, blushing is not becoming.

Young adults entering the workplace are usually a year or two removed from the emotional voyage of adolescence, but the start of a career elicits a whole new psychological journey. The world of work yields changes that you may not have experienced before, and your ability to manage your emotions when things do not go your way will be vital to your long-term success. If ‘things always go your way,’ no need to waste your time reading further. As for the rest of us, I hope a few brief accounts of my own personally embarrassing experiences will provoke useful thoughts on how you can become more emotionally savvy.

  1. It turns out that barbers in Paris often do not speak English, and my French-speaking inadequacies resulted in an international haircut I wasn’t too proud of. The haircut was noticeably bad to the point where friends and co-workers would feel inclined to ask what exactly happened. A trivial dilemma, yes –hair usually does grow back– but in the midst of collaborative work assignments, the way others perceived my appearance felt at least mildly significant. In what came to feel like the climax of this experience, a co-worker of mine, in the middle of a business meeting that included my manager and others, asked directly the question I was dreading: “What exactly happened to your hair?” In the very brief moment that followed, I decided whether to valiantly defend my appearance or provide a clarifying elaboration. Doing neither of these, I laughed – both admitting its awfulness and suggesting that I should have studied harder in high-school French class.

Key Takeaway: Do not waste your time becoming defensive about miniscule social anomalies in the workplace. Instead, try to realize that the workplace tends to be a highly volatile environment. What was worth talking about an hour ago can lose its relevance quicker than the amount of time you spend worrying about it. In other words, stay focused on what matters – and learn to laugh at yourself every now and then.

  1. Not too long ago, I was involved in an online discussion with a group of five or six people regarding the future of an organization. The discussion regarded the way in which leadership succession would be organized and it became apparent that I had some opposing views about the proposed plan. Shortly after voicing my opinion, I was specifically and rather abrasively called out for allegedly narrowing the conversation and discounting the views of others, which undoubtedly created a sense of awkwardness. Genuinely surprised by the allegations, I informed the others that it was not my intent, but I felt a little uneasy and almost isolated from the rest of the team afterward. While I truthfully fostered good intentions for the organization’s future, I was now fearful of being perceived by the group as arrogant and non-collaborative.

Key Takeaway: While you will undoubtedly experience a blow to your ego at some point or another, it’s helpful to reflect upon the experience itself rather than obsess about how it made you feel and what others will then think of you because of it. Ask yourself if the response you received from your actions or attitude was warranted. If so, then you may have to be more cognizant of how you are presenting yourself to others. In any case, reflecting upon your experience will help you learn from it, and if you can master the skill of turning mistakes into positive learning experiences, you will put yourself in a good position for the future.

  1. I once worked hard preparing for a presentation of sorts, but spent a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the visual component and neglected the verbal one. As a result, the presentation evoked an ad-lib vibe, that wasn’t a disaster, but certainly didn’t live up to the standards of those around me and especially my own. I remember quite vividly the emotional thoughts and questions that haunted me in the aftermath, which were split between the perceptions of others and my own abilities: What will the others think of me now? Have their opinions changed? Maybe I am just not good at giving presentations? Perhaps I am not as smart as I thought I was? Looking back, these questions seem ridiculous and even laughable, but at the time I was quite distracted by them, and my mind was surely not clean of worry.

Key Takeaway: When we fail to meet others expectations and even our own, out of embarrassment, we certainly tend to question a number of things regarding why it happened and what will be the consequences. Reflection is good if it leads to new discoveries, but it can become unhealthy when you draw conclusions that are simply irrational. In my experiences, I have come to realize that the mind is a powerful thing, and you can convince yourself of nearly anything if you try hard enough. Accordingly, I encourage you not to convince yourself that you are utterly incapable in the aftermath of your failures. Instead, actively seek opportunities to improve, develop and maybe even master whatever it is you failed at. To conclude, people become embarrassed on a daily basis, and several of these experiences arise in the workplace. Equipping yourself to better cope with the effects of embarrassing experiences and clearing your mind of irrational, emotionally-driven conclusions will enable you to succeed more rapidly in the world of work.

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