Feeling Guilty? That Could Be a Good Thing

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Feeling Guilty? That Could Be a Good Thing

When it comes to work attendance, “guilt proneness” may be a bigger factor than job satisfaction.
Guilt motivates best when it's self-inflicted. | Archive Timothy McCarthy / Art Resource, NY. Caption: Cain After Having Killed His Brother Abel. Vidal Henri, 1896.

It might seem like a safe assumption that employees who like their jobs would be more likely to show up for work each day, and those who are disgruntled would be the ones more likely to hit the snooze button on their alarms and go back to sleep.

Strangely, though, research on the subject of absenteeism hasn’t borne out that assumption, with meta-analyses of the link between job satisfaction and absenteeism finding only a weak negative correlation between the two factors.

“When it comes to doing something or not doing it, whether that something is personally pleasurable affects our behavior less than we might think,” explains Rebecca Schaumberg, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior/business administration at Stanford Graduate School of Business and is now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Instead, Schaumberg and her colleague Francis J. Flynn, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford GSB, have documented the surprising power of another motivating factor — the guilt people feel when they don’t fulfill someone else’s expectations.

Assessing “Guilt Proneness”

In a paper (“Clarifying the Link Between Job Satisfaction and Absenteeism: The Role of Guilt Proneness”) published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Schaumberg and Flynn studied a sample of 334 customer service agents at seven different call centers for a major telecommunications company in the southwestern U.S. The subjects took an online survey in which they expressed how they felt about their jobs, and then also took a test designed to assess their “guilt proneness,” or their tendency to experience negative feelings about personal wrongdoing. After that, the researchers analyzed four months’ worth of the workers’ attendance records, provided by the company.

Schaumberg and Flynn found that for workers who had a low degree of guilt proneness, job satisfaction was negatively related to absenteeism — that is, if they were happy with their work, they tended to show up. In contrast, job satisfaction was unrelated to absenteeism for highly guilt-prone employees.

“People who have guilt proneness show up even if they don’t like their job as much,” Flynn says.

Guilt is good. It actually has a lot in common with positive emotions.
Francis J. Flynn

That finding was bolstered by a second survey, in which Schaumberg and Flynn studied 227 workers in a range of industries from agriculture to entertainment and got similar results. In addition, the researchers also measured two other qualities — agreeableness and moral identity — and found that these traits influenced absenteeism in a fashion similar to guilt proneness. As they write in their paper, those results “further support our theorizing that the relationship between job satisfaction and absenteeism depends upon the extent to which a person is motivated by filling others’ normative expectations, as opposed to fulfilling one’s own immediate interests.”

It’s Not About Disappointing a Particular Person

The researchers didn’t try to determine who it was that the highly guilt-prone workers were so worried about not disappointing. As Schaumberg explains, that can vary from person to person and situation to situation.

“It’s more the tendency to feel guilt that’s important,” she says. “The person will anticipate guilt for failing to fulfil the expectations of others by not doing something they should have done. But it’s not a tendency to feel guilty to colleagues or family or a husband or spouse. It’s generalized.”

A propensity for experiencing guilt might seem like a painful psychological affliction. But as Flynn explains, it actually can be a plus in the workplace. Previous studies by Schaumberg and Flynn have found that highly guilt-prone individuals have a higher degree of commitment to organizations and are routinely rated in performance reviews as being more capable leaders than counterparts who are less prone to feeling guilty.

“Guilt is good,” Flynn says. “It actually has a lot in common with positive emotions.”

Distinguishing Guilt from Shame

Flynn says that it’s important to differentiate guilt from shame, a bad feeling that’s focused upon oneself as a person, rather than an act. Shame generally has detrimental effects and can cause a worker to withdraw or lash out against others. A guilt-prone person, in contrast, would strive to deal with a problem that they’ve caused and undo the harm to others — or avoid committing another transgression.

All of this might lead a manager to contemplate hiring job candidates based upon their degree of guilt proneness. Flynn says that a reliable guilt proneness assessment tool for business use hasn’t yet been developed, “though I know some companies are keen on figuring it out.”

But Flynn cautions against trying to alter workers’ existing tendencies in an effort to make them feel more guilt. “Clearly, we want to get a handle upon who these highly guilt-prone people are, because they’re outstanding employees,” he says. “But we don’t want to try creating them from scratch.” Trying to make employees feel guilty about missing work could backfire and trigger reactance, in which they resist the manipulation. “People don’t like having a guilt trip placed on them,” he observes.

Instead, Schaumberg hopes that the insights from the research eventually will lead to managers being more cognizant of the psychological diversity of individuals in their workforce. “If we better understand a person’s qualities, we can better create an environment in which the person can thrive,” she says.

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