WORKPLACE / JAN. 06, 2015
version 2, draft 2

The Role of Guilt in the Workplace

I’ve written a number of times about the immense value placed on conscientious behaviours in the workplace.  Employers around the world have singled out this particular trait as being their most sought after.  With a conscientious personality, you inevitably strive to do the best job possible.  Does that inevitably lead to a sense of guilt if, for whatever reason, you end up letting down a colleague, and does this sense of guilt matter?

A new study, published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, suggests it may well do.  The study suggests that employees prone to feel guilty when they let a colleague down are not only the most hardworking people in the office, but also often the most ethical too.  Interestingly however, such people also find it difficult to go into partnerships with other colleagues.

The finding has some big implications for how we go about forming our teams, because whilst the guilt-prone employees amongst us tend to make great teammates, they often appear reluctant to do so.

“Because of this concern for the impact of their actions on others’ welfare, highly guilt-prone people often outwork their less guilt-prone colleagues, demonstrate more effective leadership, and contribute more to the success of the teams and partnerships in which they are involved,” the research team explain.

The role of guilt in the workplace

The study saw five experiments conducted, with each one revealing that people prone to feel intense pangs of guilt can often be incredibly reluctant to work with others, especially if that colleague is more talented than they are.  The authors suggest that this is largely down to the perceived unequal contributions of the partnership, with the guilt-prone individual reluctant to take more out of the relationship than they put in.

“It may come as a surprise,” the authors say, “but our findings demonstrate that people who lack competence may not always seek out competence in others when choosing work partners.”

The research saw participants asked who they would rather complete a task with, having been given a degree of information about their potential collaborators, including their level of expertise in that particular field.  It emerged that participants with high guilt responses were less likely to choose a partner who was better in that field than them for fear that they would only let them down.

Guilt and salaries

Interestingly, this also had an influence on the salary expectations of participants.  Those who were likely to feel guilt were much happier to be paid purely on their performances.

“Guilt proneness reduces the incidence of unethical behavior,” the authors say. “Highly guilt-prone people are conscientious. They are less likely to free-ride on others’ expertise, and they will sacrifice financial gain out of concern about how their actions would influence others’ welfare.”

The findings should have some interesting applications in the workplace, as managers can use the information to form more coherent and productive teams.

“Managers could try to ensure that highly guilt-prone people are creating the partnerships and perhaps even assuming leadership roles on teams,” the authors conclude, “despite highly guilt-prone people’s fear that by accepting these leadership positions they might be putting themselves into position to let their teammates down.”

I’d love to hear from you if you’re someone who is prone to feeling guilty for letting others down.  Can you relate to the findings in your own professional life?  Let me know in the comments below.

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