EMOTIONAL HEALTH
January 8, 2015

The Wages of Guilt

Managers would do well to seek out guilt-prone employees. They're conscientious and ethical. There's just one catch...

Guilt is no one's favorite emotion. Though the prickle of guilt may not be pleasant, new research suggests that the guilt-ridden among us may make the best employees. After all, they’re less likely to miss a deadline, commit transgressions, or shunt their work onto others.

But there’s a downside: The guilt-ridden may also be less likely to team up with highly skilled coworkers, which could lead to missed opportunities.

The new study determined people’s overall guilt-proneness by asking them questions like “After realizing you have received too much change at a store, you decide to keep it because the salesclerk doesn’t notice. What is the likelihood that you would feel uncomfortable about keeping the money?”

Highly guilt-prone people are conscientious. They are less likely to free-ride on others’ expertise…

Next participants were told they’d be completing a difficult accounting task, but that they could team up with partners who were highly knowledgeable in the area. Despite the fact that they might perform worse without the help of an expert, the guilt-ridden were less likely to want to partner with an accounting whiz, perhaps for fear of bringing them down or not pulling their weight in the collaboration.

They were also less likely to want to be paid in relation to the work of the team, and more likely to want to be paid based on their contribution alone.

“It may come as a surprise,” said study author Scott S. Wiltermuth in a news release, “but our findings demonstrate that people who lack competence may not always seek out competence in others when choosing work partners.”

The results even extended to people with whom the participants were given the opportunity to become friendly by conversing for some time before the study task took place — and it extended to people the participants already knew in their personal lives. In other words, the reluctance to pair up didn’t just pertain to strangers, it was also true with respect to people the participants knew either though the study or on their own.

“Guilt-proneness reduces the incidence of unethical behavior,” Wiltermuth said. “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.”

People who lack competence may not always seek out competence in others when choosing work partners.

The guilt-ridden can make very good employees for exactly these reasons: They’re hard and ethical workers, he added.

“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.”

But the trait may limit the professional growth of the guilt-prone if they’re reluctant to partner with people from whom they can learn something. It may also be a financial disadvantage if they refuse to let themselves be evaluated and reimbursed as a team. So how can managers use this information in their businesses?

They might want to push the guilt-prone into collaborations, even if the person in question seems reluctant or expresses concern about their role in the partnership.

“Managers could try to ensure that highly guilt-prone people are creating the partnerships and perhaps even assuming leadership roles on teams,” Wiltermuth said, even though the highly guilt-prone may fear that they could be putting themselves into position to let their teammates down.

And if you’re someone who tends toward feeling guilty, go outside your comfort zone: Volunteer to partner with someone who knows more than you and let it work to your advantage — it may well pay off professionally, and perhaps financially as well.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Southern California and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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