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“Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders.”

One of my early illusions about good leaders is that they are strong, impenetrable, and unaffected by any failings (their own and those of others). But Stanford researchers, Becky Schaumberg and Dr. Francis Flynn, suggest that there is some merit to having a guilt instinct or response, especially if you want to be a leader. There is a difference between "guilt" and "shame." Though both are responses to a blunder, the difference is in the responses to the error. Those who feel shame shrink away from the error, those who feel guilt feel a responsibility to others and are perceived as leaders. This distinction the authors make between guilt and shame is one that Brené Brown makes in her research as well.

In one experiment, researchers surveyed guilt proneness, shame proneness, and extraversion, among other characteristics. They found that "guilt-prone members of the group seemed to the rest of the group to be making more of an effort than others to ensure everyone’s voice was being heard, to lead the discussion, and generally to take charge." Does this mean that people who feel more guilt feel more obligation to the wellness of others? How would this serve a leader in a large corporate setting?

It may serve leaders in any setting who recognize their human obligations and connections to others, especially their charges. It seems to be a sensible response when others do not live up to expectations. You may want someone to feel guilt when they don't meet goals. Guilt even has a place for workers, too. Dr. Flynn and Ms. Schaumberg also found that guilt in the workplace is very good for the employers, in fact, "guilt-proneness motivates employees to work hard on their tasks, perform well in their jobs, and feel committed to their employer."

Share Your Reflection



I am not perfect, but I am a leader. Now I understand better the role of mistakes in my life.

'there is some merit to having a guilt instinct or response, especially if you want to be a leader'
- It would be interesting to distinguish between guilt prone leaders who 'want' to become leaders or those who 'become' defacto leaders due to their assumtion of responsibility or the perceptions of the group. I am highly guilt prone and have throughout my life been asked to assume leadership roles. Rather than seeking leadership, I have, often reluctantly, assumed it for the 'good of the order'. Does this study differentiate?

this raises the question, is a strong work ethic driven by guilt aversion?

I find this article a great dare to see mistakes differently. Yes, consequences are there, but when we ourselves have a healthy view of mistakes being opportunities, we can better support and love others through their mistakes. I like to define mistakes as "learning and growing opportunities".. feeling the pain of something helps us stay connected to ourselves and deepens our understanding of human nature and what is healthy. Those who cannot feel or refuse to admit it are at danger of becoming isolated. I find these people rarely ever enter into anything without some safety net to guarantee there is something tangibly gained for themselves and it is the demise of experiencing true closeness and relationship. They are good at appearing to be in closeness but usually its superficial. I enjoy the vulnerability of this subject because its the thread of our existence. Feelings are a necessary part of our make up as human beings and emotional intelligence is a part of aa whole person.

In struggling with my own mistakes, and those of parishioners in my work as a minister, I have boiled it down to this:
Compunction is a piercing of our heart that lets us know we have done harm.
Guilt is a necessary response to the knowledge we have done harm,an alert that the essential fabric of existence has been torn.
Guilt is ony meant to get our attention to the tear and motivate our future action.
Repentance is not just vowing to be or do differently, or apologize, but to literally "turn around" our basic motivation that caused us to harm in the first place.
Based on this understanding, guilt is a necessary alert system that will be used over and over by any leader.

And is it better for employees when employers feel guilt or feel shame? The last sentence betrays something that I'd have thought a blog on being, community, ethical living, and the value of humanity would not want to reproduce: a serious class bias. Since when are we mostly concerned with how to get the most out of our workers? Why is that couched in anything but cold and calculating terms? Why celebrate employers' need to try to get workers to 'feel loyal (as Ford Pinto creators felt loyal to Ford, as Enron employees were loyal to their parent company, and as Firestone employees have felt loyal to their company even in the face of illegal but profitable practices) and work harder, especially now that most Americans are working longer hours than ever before (for lower pay per unit of work than they did in the 50s, 60s, 70, 80s. or 90s), feeling more anxious about their job, and pressured against taking time off?
I like your blog and was surprised and dismayed by this.

I find this concept fascinating and very significant, I wonde how the notion of guilt plays out collectively, as in for example, within Eastern European Jewish culture in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. In a culture where guilt is so highly regarded and taught to children, this same group both in Eastern Europe and as immigrants to the United States, were characterized by its disproportionately high leadership and deeply devoted involvement in the radical movements of the period - including socialism, communism and anarchism.

Perhaps, not coincidentally, these philosophies were based in social justice and compassion for the poor- those same values that lie at the heart of Judaism, right up there with guilt.

Hmmm. Makes me think your paradigm and Jewish radical history have a few things in common! The potential for using guilt as a interpersonal skill to teach empathy and compassion toward others, as well as a propensity to act for the good and , this has tremendous possibilities in the fields of child development and education. Perhaps our idea that guilt is a bad thing need to be jettisoned first.

Thank you for your work.