When Guilt Is Good

Research by the Stanford Graduate School of Business had some surprising results suggesting that even more than extroversion, a sense of guilt may be a strong indicator of leadership potential.

Although “guilt” and “shame” may seem quite similar to most people…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…

The researchers administered a test to measure how guilt prone people were and then put these people into a variety of situations. When they asked the participants to rate each other’s leadership qualities, those who scored higher for guilt were ranked highest for leadership.

According to the research article, participants weren’t picking up on people’s guilt but rather the behaviors that manifested from those feelings “making more of an effort than others to ensure everyone’s voice was being heard, to lead the discussion, and generally to take charge.” Similar research was conducted outside the lab at businesses surveying employees, clients and coworkers and produced similar results.

The key thing to understand is that guilt prone people feel responsible for the group at their own expense in contrast with shame prone people who tend to feel responsible for protecting themselves.

It should be noted, however, that guilt prone people are also most likely to support layoffs. While they feel bad about firing people, their sense of responsibility for the company as a whole will lead them to seek ways to fix the problems the organization faces. And good leadership abilities doesn’t guarantee good decision making abilities.

These results made me wonder about the qualities of non-profit leaders. A streak of martyrdom always seemed to be a prerequisite to work long hours for little pay. I don’t think it takes any great leap in logic to think it is motivated by a sense of guilt and responsibility to insure the organization is successful in providing its services to the detriment of oneself.

If this is actually a good thing according to the Stanford research, do people drawn to non-profit service actually have the best leadership potential and simply lack the training and resources to more effectively fulfill this potential?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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