Can you remember the last time you felt guilty? What was it like – did it move you to do something? Most likely it did; guilt is a powerful emotion! You might have felt guilty about breaking your commitment to a diet by eating a piece of chocolate cake or because you completely forgot about a lunch date with a friend. We’ve also witnessed the emotion on display in the public apologies we’ve heard from leaders who have broken a trust. Common wisdom views guilt as a negative emotion because we experience it when our behavior causes others to feel discomfort or pain. That is why we adopt various coping mechanisms to relieve ourselves of the feeling. Denial: “I did nothing wrong.” Projection: “It’s his fault I behaved so badly.” And a lack of emotional and social intelligence can conspire in minimizing and blinding us to the critical learning that it is designed to provide. Guilt is a chemical messenger on a mission to let you know that you may have crossed a boundary. Don’t shoot the messenger!
I recently read two articles with two very different perspectives on guilt. In the Week in Review section of the New York Times on January 2, 2011 the feature headline read, “It’s the day after New Year’s – broken your resolution yet? No guilt necessary.” The message is that guilt is an emotion to be avoided and there are things you can do to avoid this uncomfortable feeling. The second article was in the January issue of Harvard Business Review, Guilt-Ridden People Make Great Leaders
. The article reviews research which shows that guilt has a positive correlation with leaders’ performance and perceived capability. “People who are prone to guilt tend to work harder and perform better than people who are not guilt-prone, and are perceived to be more capable leaders.”
Is it possible then that guilt is neither a negative nor a positive emotion, but rather, serves a higher purpose, to help you become a better person?
The research project, headed by Francis Flynn PhD, and conducted at a Fortune 500 firm, found that people who are prone to guilt received higher performance ratings from their bosses. Related studies found that this characteristic was associated with higher levels of organizational commitment and peers’ perception that these individuals were stronger leaders.
In fact, Flynn’s work indicates that, “employees who have guilty tendencies could be the best thing that ever happened to your organization.”
Guilt prone individuals are more likely to be:
* Harder Workers
* Better Leaders
* More Altruistic and willing to help others
* Higher Performers
* More committed to their employers
* Able to see the big picture
When I read this study I couldn’t help but think about the recent financial debacle, and although it would be unfair to paint all the wizards of Wall Street with the same brush, it would appear they could use a few more leaders with a conscience. I also reflected on the recent push by some business schools to have students sign an ethics pledge, which was not met with great enthusiasm. I recall one student quoted who said that he felt insulted by the request. Yet we know that the more the financial stakes increase, the more likely that guilt and ethics will take a secondary position.
Emotional and Social Intelligence: Guilt and Empathy
“Even more complex social emotions like shame, embarrassment, guilt and pride are attached to mirror neuron system found in the insula of the brain.”
~ Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization
By the age of four or five children understand social expectations and are capable of experiencing a sense of guilt from hurting another child. This maturation process is critical in the development of empathy. By the ages of ten to twelve children can think abstractly and their sense of guilt is also abstracted. It is at this age that they internalize a sense of social guilt and anguish over failures to live up to moral standards of society. What we know is that human beings are wired to have the emotional and social capacity to experience a full range of feelings, which is meant to help us survive and to live socially, morally and ethically. The responsibility of parents, leaders, citizens and institutions is to assist in this development and to promote social and business expectations and standards that inspire us to reach our human potential; and to not encourage the philosophy popularized by Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, “…greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.”
It seems to me that we are witnessing an increase of denial, projection and suppression of the two emotions that are meant to keep our social and moral compass pointed in the right direction and to keep us connected - guilt and empathy. We see examples of this not only in the business arena, but also in the social relationships of our youth. Almost weekly I see stories of bullying taking place in the halls of our schools and on the Internet with some resulting in tragic outcomes.
My deep concern is that we are in a cycle of polarization and isolation, which blocks the development of our emotional and social intelligence as well as our ability to feel and learn from guilt and express empathy. In the January/February issue of The Atlantic, in an article titled, The Rise of The New Global Elite
, author Chrystia Freeland describes the growing divide between the wealthy elite and the rest of the world’s population. The following quote from the article shows the dangers of how isolation disconnects and inhibits one’s facility to feel guilt, take appropriate responsibility and to express empathy. “When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford.”
Fortunately, our brains don’t lose their capacity to experience these vital emotions. However, we must be cautious, very cautious that we don’t create the circumstances in which our isolation and polarization become immense gulfs, and that our brains perceive that the pain to bridge these gulfs would be so harsh that we choose to use projection and denial to protect ourselves from feeling our guilt and therefore our ability to empathize.
One way for leaders and organizations to create healthy and productive workplaces is to focus on the development of emotional and social intelligence and to make sure that moral and ethical behavior is expected and recognized. And you might want to consider asking two questions, “When was the last time I allowed myself to feel guilt and what did I do about it,?” and when considering someone for a promotion or a new hire, “Tell me, when was the last time you felt guilty about something and what did you do about it?”