Guilt vs. Shame: Which Signals Leadership Potential?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - 5:01 am

Guilt vs. Shame: Which Signals Leadership Potential?

“Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders.”

One of my early illusions about good leaders is that they are strong, impenetrable, and unaffected by any failings (their own and those of others). But Stanford researchers, Becky Schaumberg and Dr. Francis Flynn, suggest that there is some merit to having a guilt instinct or response, especially if you want to be a leader. There is a difference between “guilt” and “shame.” Though both are responses to a blunder, the difference is in the responses to the error. Those who feel shame shrink away from the error, those who feel guilt feel a responsibility to others and are perceived as leaders. This distinction the authors make between guilt and shame is one that Brené Brown makes in her research as well.
In one experiment, researchers surveyed guilt proneness, shame proneness, and extraversion, among other characteristics. They found that “guilt-prone members of the group seemed to the rest of the group to be making more of an effort than others to ensure everyone’s voice was being heard, to lead the discussion, and generally to take charge.” Does this mean that people who feel more guilt feel more obligation to the wellness of others? How would this serve a leader in a large corporate setting?
It may serve leaders in any setting who recognize their human obligations and connections to others, especially their charges. It seems to be a sensible response when others do not live up to expectations. You may want someone to feel guilt when they don’t meet goals. Guilt even has a place for workers, too. Dr. Flynn and Ms. Schaumberg also found that guilt in the workplace is very good for the employers, in fact, “guilt-proneness motivates employees to work hard on their tasks, perform well in their jobs, and feel committed to their employer.”

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was an associate producer at On Being.

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