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Prone to Guilt? That's Why You're a Terrific Employee

A forthcoming study suggests that guilt has an important role to play in the workplace, and not just when bosses are trying to manipulate employees to handle an unpleasant task. The study, by Francis Flynn and Rebecca Schaumberg, both of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, shows that people who have strong tendencies to feel guilt also get better performance reviews and are more likely to be perceived as strong leaders than their more carefree peers.

Flynn and Schaumberg gave a standard psychological test to about 150 people in the finance department of a large U.S. company. The test included measurements of how likely the subjects were to feel guilty in various situations. The researchers then compared those results with the employees' performance reviews.

In this case, guilt is defined as a feeling brought on by a failure to meet expectations. Unlike shame, guilt is seen as somewhat functional, because it can be constructive and lead to change. Shame is considered dysfunctional, because it encourages those who feel it to withdraw or be hostile.

Here's what the researchers found:

  • People prone to feeling guilty got better performance reviews. This could be because they were naturally better, more diligent workers, or because it was easier for their bosses to manipulate them.
  • Those who were more likely to feel guilty were also more likely to promote the organization to others
  • Guilt-ridden people were less likely to protest against layoffs and more likely, if asked, to carry them out dutifully. The researchers say that's because guilt-ridden people feel a responsibility to be 'good soldiers,' and to put the interests of the company ahead of the interests of a few people.
In follow-up research, the professors found that:
  • People who were prone to guilt were more committed to their organizations
  • Guilt-prone people are seen as stronger leaders by their peers
Why guilt is important
In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Flynn takes pains to point out that this doesn't mean your boss should try to guilt-trip you every time he or she needs you to do something difficult or distasteful. The study only analyzed existing tendencies to feel guilty, and didn't look at any attempts to push people into feeling guilt.

Most of the characteristics of people who are more likely to feel guilt--putting the interests of the company first, being committed to an organization, and getting good performance reviews--seem to be the building blocks of good followers as much as they are characteristics of leaders. So why are guilt-prone people seen as stronger leaders? Flynn says it could be that people who are likely to feel guilty also take more responsibility for their actions, which makes them better leaders. But it could be that people who are prone to guilt may actually be less willing to take on leadership roles, because they are so keenly aware of the responsibilities that come with these positions.

In the interview with the Harvard Business Review, Flynn cites other positive associations with guilt: In general, tendencies toward guilt are associated with more willingness to make charitable contributions and to assist people who need help. Neither of these are commonly associated with the type-A, take-charge personalities that seem to thrive in corner offices.

What do you think? Should we require a little more introspection--a little more guilt--of our corporate higher-ups?


Image courtesy of flickr user Racchio
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at