Guilty Conscience? Could Mean You'd Make a Great Leader, Say Stanford Researchers

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Could the tendency to feel guilty be a good thing? It is if you're up for a leadership position at an investment bank, according to researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders,” says Becky Schaumberg, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior who did research on this subject along with Francis Flynn, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford GSB.

Guilt doesn't mean shame

The research makes a clear distinction between those who feel guilt and those who feel shame, however—suggesting that the former are much better suited to leadership roles.

“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,” says the Stamford School of Business in a statement about the research.

In one study, people were given a written test that asks them how they’d react to specific blunders—such as spilling wine on the cream-colored carpet at a co-worker’s housewarming party—to peg participants as either guilt-prone or shame-prone.

“That distinction makes all the difference in who is seen as a leader,” the balance of the study revealed.

Guilt proneness

Next, researchers put each group in a lab and, without designating a leader, gave them about an hour to perform two group tasks—such as sketching out a marketing campaign for a new product. At the end of the tasks, participants rated one another on leadership qualities—taking charge of the task, for example, and leading the conversation.

Interestingly enough, in all the groups tested, the people who were most likely to be judged by others as the group’s leaders tended to be the same ones who had scored highest in guilt-proneness.

Also, in group discussions, 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.

In fact, guilt proneness predicted emerging leadership even more than being an extravert—a tried and true marker of leadership, say the researchers.

Different study, similar results

And in a different study, the researchers gathered feedback from incoming MBA students’ former managers, clients and co-workers, asking these colleagues to evaluate the students on established traits of leadership effectiveness, such as communication skills and the ability to motivate others.

Again, “A strong link emerged between a participant’s guilt-proneness as measured in the personality test and the extent to which others saw the person as a leader.”

Strangely enough, whereas past research has noted that budding leaders tend to think positive, “Guilt proneness is an exception to that general trend,” Schaumberg says.

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