How Guilt Impacts Us At Work

Guilt is one of the more evident human emotions, but until recently it’s been one that hasn’t been studied a great deal in terms of its impact on our work.  One of the more interesting was covered last year and explored how guilt can encourage cooperation at work.

Or you’ve got a recent study from researchers at Stanford University, which has explored how guilt can prompt us to overcome feelings of job satisfaction.  It suggests that our propensity to feel guilty has a big impact on whether we clock in at work, even when job satisfaction levels vary.  Indeed, feelings of guilt were more influential in determining absenteeism rates than employee engagement levels.

“When it comes to doing something or not doing it, whether that something is personally pleasurable affects our behavior less than we might think,” the authors say.

On a guilt trip to work

Instead, the guilt we feel when we don’t match up to expectations others have of us can be much more of a factor in getting us to the office.  The authors examined a number of customer service agents in a telco company in the US. Each participant was quizzed on their job satisfaction levels, together with a test to gauge their propensity to feel guilt.  This was then followed by four months of monitoring to observe their attendance levels.

The analysis found that among those with a low propensity for guilt, their job satisfaction levels had a significant impact on their absenteeism rate.  In other words, if they weren’t happy at work, they were less likely to turn up. In contrast, for those who were prone to pangs of guilt, this link was not found.

This finding was replicated in a second study of workers from a range of industries, including agriculture and entertainment, all of which seemed to reveal a similar pattern.  Interestingly however, it seems as though it wasn’t just guilt that was at play. The researchers also found that agreeableness and moral identity also had a similar impact upon absenteeism.  Both of these characteristics share a sense of trying to fulfil others’ expectations of us however.

“The person will anticipate guilt for failing to fulfill 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,” the authors explain.

It seems therefore, that guilt can in fact be a positive element in the workplace, and indeed it builds upon previous work that suggests guilt can translate into better performance reviews, with guilty individuals rated as more capable leaders.  The authors suggest this is because the emotion is very distinguishable from shame, which is a much more negative emotion that reflects upon our feelings about ourselves rather than on a particular act.

Suffice to say, it’s very difficult to actually tell whether someone is prone to pangs of guilt, and certainly not at the recruitment stage where such knowledge might be useful, although the authors do believe such tools are being worked upon.  If it ever is something that is cracked, it may be one more characteristic employers will look for when evaluating potential candidates.