Why feeling guilty may make you a better boss

A woman looking guilty about rowing with a colleague, chocolate, not washing up, and killing a squirrel with her car

What character traits make a great leader? Decisiveness, confidence, intelligence… guiltiness? Recent surveys suggest that a sensitivity to feelings of guilt can be good for business, society and the individual.

Every November it's the same. In countless offices, factories and shops, the boss is asking for a volunteer.

Someone needs to organise the Christmas party. It's not a big job, recent joiners are assured. You just need to find a venue - nothing special, just somewhere that caters for vegans, carnivores, the wheat-intolerant and those on diets. With at least four pricing options.

You will need to take the orders to the restaurant - make sure they don't mess them up or you will get the blame. And as for the money for the deposit, well, your colleagues should pay you back by Christmas this year or, failing that, Christmas next year.

But although organising the office Christmas party is often a thankless chore, someone always volunteers to do it.

Find out more

Rebecca Schaumberg spoke to Health Check on the BBC World Service

This was exactly the kind of situation that intrigued Rebecca Schaumberg, a graduate student at Stanford University's School of Business.

"Why would people take charge in a group situation when there's not really an incentive to do so? We started thinking maybe they just feel really guilty about not doing it."

Many psychologists believe we vary widely in the extent which we are susceptible to feelings of guilt, and that the emotion can be a spur to action. Some people stay late on a Friday night to finish a piece of work, knowing they won't enjoy their weekend unless they do. Other people go home and watch a movie.

"The emotion is really uncomfortable and it's something that we tend to want to get rid of but the drive to reduce our feelings of guilt can actually propel us to act in really positive ways," says Schaumberg.

"It's that sort of anticipation of feeling guilt that might lead individuals to emerge or take on leadership roles."

An aficionado of guilt

Thomas Keneally

Australian writer Thomas Keneally, best-known for his novel Schindler's Ark, once trained to be a Catholic priest.

The only piece of Catholic doctrine I retain is a belief in original sin, including my own.

I think writers have a tendency to be aficionados of guilt. It is interesting though, that while so potently able to explain and feel guilt, many writers are also nasty to their spouses and their children.

But the most peculiar thing I've found is that for years I've carried guilt about something that happened when my daughters were young or when my brother was young - something mean and nasty that I did. And at last I get the guts to talk to them about it and they genuinely can't remember it. They can't remember this crime which I've carried all this time.

To an extent that tells you that guilt can be a trigger for neurosis and narcissism - if you drag guilt around, you are declaring yourself a grand criminal, which is rather melodramatic for most of us. Most of us didn't run Auschwitz, most of us haven't been associated with oppression.

Guilt is a neurosis and it can be a selfish trap and a self-exonerating trap, but it can also be a positive drive, the way shame can be too.

Thomas Keneally spoke to The Forum on the BBC World Service

She and her colleagues conducted experiments with volunteers in the US. The participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire containing a number of hypothetical scenarios, such as "You are driving down the road, and you hit a small animal."

Each scenario was followed by a range of emotional responses and the participants had to select one that matched how they would feel. This allowed Schaumberg and her colleagues to gauge their "guilt proneness".

The participants were then asked to complete group tasks in which they had an opportunity, but no real incentive, to take charge. It became clear that the higher someone's level of guilt proneness, the more likely he or she was to step up as a leader in the activity.

The team also examined performance feedback for people in real management positions. They found that those who were more prone to feelings of guilt were more often judged by their colleagues and direct reports to be effective leaders.

The results are striking because guilt is experienced as a negative emotion. Previous studies have suggested that what psychologists call "positive affectivity" - being upbeat - can contribute to effective leadership.

Schaumberg believes that the reason for the findings might be the greater sense of responsibility for others that guilt prone people feel. Guilt prone leaders are also acutely aware of their own past mistakes.

"One of the questions about guilt that I think is the most interesting, but still unanswered is: 'For whom do people feel guilty?'" says Schaumberg. "When we think about the bottom-line driven banker on Wall Street, we tend to think that they should feel guilty towards society.

"But in fact they may feel guilty towards their organisation or the people they work for."

How guilt prone are you?

Red wine spilt on a carpet

Here are four questions from the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale, devised by Taya Cohen and her colleagues:

  • After realising you have received too much change at a store, you decide to keep it because the sales-clerk doesn't notice. What is the likelihood that you would feel uncomfortable about keeping the money?
  • You secretly commit a felony. What is the likelihood that you would feel remorse about breaking the law?
  • At a co-worker's housewarming party, you spill red wine on their new cream-coloured carpet. You cover the stain with a chair so that nobody notices your mess. What is the likelihood that you would feel that the way you acted was pathetic?
  • You lie to people but they never find out about it. What is the likelihood that you would feel terrible about the lies you told?

Adapted with permission from Introducing the GASP scale: A new measure of guilt and shame proneness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,Taya Cohen et al. Copyright: American Psychological Association

Another researcher, Taya Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University, has looked more directly at the correlation between guilt proneness and ethical action.

She and her colleagues assessed participants - again in the US - on their levels of guilt proneness and then set them tasks to measure how ethical their behaviour was.

Who feels most guilty?

  • Women are more guilt prone than men - 30% of men were assessed as having high guilt proneness as opposed to 45% of women
  • Older people are more guilt prone than younger people
  • There is a weak correlation suggesting that religious believers are more guilt prone than non-believers
  • However, no real variance in guilt proneness has been found between different religions

Source: Taya Cohen, Carnegie Mellon University

In one hypothetical task, respondents were asked whether they would exploit a legal loophole to do business in a country where it was illegal to do so because of human rights violations. Forty-one per cent of participants with low guilt proneness said they would probably or definitely exploit the loophole, whereas only 25% of people with high guilt proneness gave this answer.

In her paper, which concludes that people with high guilt proneness are less likely to act in unethical ways, Cohen suggests that the findings are relevant to the selection of partners not only for the boardroom but also for the bedroom. She writes that "it may be wise for seekers of ethical friends and lovers to be mindful of guilt proneness when selecting new companions".

And yet guilt proneness is not often highlighted on dating sites and unlike GSOH (good sense of humour), VGP (very guilt prone) has yet to become a popular phrase in lonely-hearts columns.

At present someone who describes himself or herself as guilt prone might be taken for a neurotic.

Guilt v shame

Shigeoki Togo, president of Nippon Credit Bank Ltd, bowing deeply after the Japanese government bailed out the debt-ridden bank in 1998

For the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, shame depends on the observation of other people, whereas guilt can be experienced in private.

In a 1946 study, she distinguished between "shame cultures" such as Japan and China, and "guilt cultures" such as the US. Whereas the guilty conscience is a means of social control in individualistic societies, face, honour and ostracism have the same role in Eastern societies, including China and Korea.

Although the distinction is controversial, research suggests that in some cultures shame can be a springboard to positive action. For example, one study found that Chinese managers in Hong Kong used shame to resolve conflicts, while separate research has found that US managers were more likely to use shame to punish employees.

The anthropologists Usha Menon and Richard Shweder presented Indian and American children with a list of three emotions - shame, happiness and anger - and asked them to pick the odd one out. While the American children viewed happiness as being the most different emotion, the Indian children chose anger. They seemed to be aware of a positive side to feeling shame.

For Cohen, that's not quite right. "Being guilt prone does not mean that a person is perpetually feeling guilty for things that they haven't done," she says.

She has collected some preliminary evidence that suggests that people with higher guilt proneness actually feel guilty less often than people with lower guilt proneness. A possible reason for this is that since they are behaving more ethically they simply have less to feel guilty about.

Both Cohen and Schaumberg also make a clear distinction between guilt and shame - a trait linked to low self-esteem.

Whereas guilt is a negative evaluation of a particular action, shame is defined by these researchers as a negative judgement on the whole self. Let's say that you feel bad about running over a small animal late at night, while you were feeling tired at the wheel. A guilty reaction would be to blame yourself for your inattentive driving. A shameful reaction would be to see yourself as a stupid, careless person.

Because shame is such a painful emotion, it is thought that people who suffer from it are more likely to externalise their behaviour by blaming others or the environment. Shame-prone drivers might blame their car, or whatever had kept them up so late, or even the small animal for running under their wheels.

"Shame proneness is associated with a desire to hide or withdraw from the situation following a transgression," says Cohen. "Guilt proneness, on the other hand, is associated more strongly with a desire to repair one's transgression."

The animal itself will probably be beyond repair, but guilt prone drivers might just be a little more careful in the future.

If guilt proneness is so positive, should we be encouraging it? Should aspiring leaders attend lectures on their MBA courses on how to feel worse about their actions?

"I don't think management courses should start trying to induce guilt in others," says Schaumberg. "But rather to teach them that guilt is an 'all right' emotion, as opposed to saying it's bad to experience negative emotions."

So if you tend to feel guilty about every little transgression, relax. Feeling guilty, it seems, is nothing to feel ashamed about.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

Excerpt from the GASP scale copyrighted to the American Psychological Association. No further reproduction or distribution is permitted without written permission from the American Psychological Association.

Rebecca Schaumberg spoke to Health Check on the BBC World Service.

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.