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Why Feelings of Guilt May Signal Leadership Potential

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Why Feelings of Guilt May Signal Leadership Potential

Stanford GSB researchers find that how people respond to mistakes can be a "clue to who they are."
A man in a suit hanging his head in shame

When we think of a typical leader, most of us picture a person who's sociable and upbeat. But new research puts a wrinkle in that stereotype, revealing an unexpected sign of leadership potential: the tendency to feel guilty. "Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders," says Becky Schaumberg, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior who conducted the research with Francis Flynn, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior.

In one study, Schaumberg and Flynn recruited groups of four or five strangers and gave them an online personality test that measured traits including guilt proneness, shame proneness, and extraversion, among others. Although "guilt" and "shame" may seem quite similar to most people — and both are indeed negative responses to knowing you did something wrong — psychologists recognize a crucial distinction between the two: Whereas someone who feels guilty feels bad about a specific mistake and wants to make amends, a person who's ashamed of a mistake feels bad about himself or herself and shrinks away from the error. Everyone tends to respond to mistakes according to one or the other pattern, and by giving people a written test that asks them how they'd react to specific blunders — such as spilling wine on the cream-colored carpet at a co-worker's housewarming — researchers peg participants as either guilt-prone or shame-prone. That distinction makes all the difference in who is seen as a leader, as the rest of this study revealed.

After giving participants the personality test, the researchers put each group in a lab and, without designating a leader, gave them about an hour to perform two group tasks, such as sketching out a marketing campaign for a new product. At the end of the tasks, participants rated one another on leadership qualities — taking charge of the task, for example, and leading the conversation. In all the groups tested, the people who were most likely to be judged by others as the group's leaders tended to be the same ones who had scored highest in guilt proneness. Not only that, but guilt proneness predicted emerging leadership even more than did extraversion, a well-known marker of leadership.

Schaumberg explains that the group didn't necessarily recognize these emerging leaders as particularly guilt-prone. Rather, guilt proneness showed in actual behaviors: For example, in group discussions, 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. "The group was picking up on those behaviors," she says, and, given the experiment's brief span, was picking up on them pretty quickly.

In another study, the researchers found similar results for actual employees. They gathered feedback from incoming MBA students' former managers, clients, and co-workers, asking these colleagues to evaluate the students on established traits of leadership effectiveness, such as communication skills and the ability to motivate others. Even in this real-world setting, a strong link emerged between a participant's guilt-proneness as measured in the personality test and the extent to which others saw the person as a leader.

If these results seem counterintuitive, it's because we usually think of guilt as a negative emotion, whereas past research has noted that budding leaders tend to think positive. "Guilt proneness is an exception to that general trend," Schaumberg says.

The key seems to be that although guilt feels unpleasant to the individual, it can be quite beneficial for the group, causing people to do what's good for the group at personal cost — and sometimes even at the expense of other individuals. A dramatic example comes from another study, in which Schaumberg and Flynn found that guilt-prone managers were more likely to support layoffs to keep a company profitable than were those who are less guilt-prone. Even inducing a temporary sense of guilt made participants in an experiment more likely to endorse layoffs. It's not that guilt-prone managers don't feel bad having to lay people off — it's that, for reasons the researchers are still investigating, guilt seems to create a greater sense of responsibility to the organization. "If people feel guilty toward their organizations, they'll behave in ways that make sure they live up to the organization's expectations," Schaumberg says, "and these behaviors might not look like what we usually think of as guilt."

Schaumberg first began investigating a possible link between guilt and leadership when she noticed that driven, hard-working people often mentioned guilt as a motivator. "You don't usually think of guilt and leadership together, but we started thinking that people would want individuals who feel responsible to be their leaders."

Interestingly, though, people aren't just looking for someone who feels responsible: People who are prone to shame feel responsible too, but shame proneness — a tendency to judge yourself — didn't predict leadership in these studies. Schaumberg believes that's because the difference between guilt and shame leads to completely opposing behaviors: A person who's ashamed tends to pull away from problems — wishing they weren't at the party where they spilled the wine — whereas a guilt-prone person, tending to judge her actions rather than herself, is driven to solve problems (trying to clean the wine stain, for example).

That distinction may be the biggest lesson to take away from this research, both for aspiring leaders and for those looking to identify leaders. There are many ways of responding to mistakes or other problems, Schaumberg says, including blaming others and blaming yourself. But the most constructive response, and the one people seem to recognize as a sign of leadership, is to feel guilty enough to want to fix the problem. "When thinking about what traits are important for leaders to possess, there tends to be a focus on what people do well. But we know that people make mistakes and mess up, and it's important to look at how people respond to those mistakes because that's a clue to who they are."

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