Updated: Sep 10
Two weeks into a new job a decade ago, I was given the results of a third-party audit. Handed to me by the lead auditor in a nicely bounded binder, the executive summary indicated no findings on the top of page one. I vividly remember the uncomfortable smile of the auditor as he handed the audit to me with a tone of congratulations.
Being in the position for under two weeks, I was beginning to surface areas of opportunity where my experience could help with record retention, management of change, and process control disciplines. Yet I was in my self-prescribed 90-day window where I historically monitor my responsibilities versus beginning to make alterations. However, on my desk was an audit with regulatory aspects that I had to acknowledge the results by signing. I could not accept zero findings. There had to be at least one. Nobody is that good, right?
I elected not to sign the audit and quickly mobilized a second audit by a different third-party auditor. When these results came in, it showed the ineffectiveness of the initial audit along with prior years of haphazardly signing the annual audit. The thickness of this new audit inadvertently created a list of actions that would take more than a year to complete. The sympathetic emotions I felt for my team and the previous leaders were overwhelming. I was fremdschämen for sure, and it became the foundation that we can become better.
Not a commonly used word my close German friend tells me, but fremdschämen is the act of being embarrassed due to the mistake someone else created. It is a unique word that does not seem to translate into English perfectly. It is not a cringe moment or an emotion that exactly mirrors someone else's shame. Instead, it is an empathetic embarrassment, whereas you are embarrassed due to someone else mistakes. Fremdschämen is composed of “fremd” meaning foreign or external. “Schämen” is the feeling of being ashamed. The term is for the embarrassment you feel for someone else who has embarrassed themselves. It is the uncomfortable or awkward feeling when another person inadvertently creates a problem that you are now in.
I have often been deeply involved in an incident investigation and uncovered that the cause was inserted decades prior to the incident. Examples discovered could be a dimensional error on an engineering print, the lack of following through on a process change, or someone missing the collateral damage management of change made. I also know that others have found the errors that I have made and will continue for decades to come.
Regardless of who found the root cause within the investigation, I have caught myself mumbling “son-of-a-Bissot" to myself. This phrase is plagiarising or loosely playing off of saying son-of-a-bitch in a moment of unearthing the error. Yet never flippantly thrown around, when I say “son-of-a-Bissot” it is my internal pronouncement of an empathetic embarrassment and that I could have done more by finding the risk within an audit versus an investigation. I could have audited more intensely on a scenario to see the potential. But instead, I am embarrassed for the team based on where we are now post-incident. This is what fremdschämen means to me.
I know I am not alone in experiencing this emotion. Like others, when we are in these moments of fremdschämen we must dig deep to push through and move forward. There is no time to point and cast blame. We have to utilize the energy manifested from sharing the guilt of the root cause and transcribe the lessons into other areas of the business. We must constantly challenge ourselves to embrace audits with findings as needed therapy to avoid the fremdschämen moments. If not, complacency sits in, incidents occur, and then we have fremdschämen.