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Do leaders need to feel guilty?

Interesting question!

When you are recruiting or developing new leaders for your business, which factors do you consider important in your applicants?

Most businesses probably evaluate them based on their relevant skills, education and experience. And when looking at the ‘softer’ qualities of potential leaders most tend to focus on emotions and traits like pride, optimism, enthusiasm and passion as they are recognised as good indicators for leaders who will produce better outcomes and positive results.

Negative emotions, meanwhile, have been thought as less consistently useful: although bursts of appropriate anger can help to focus efforts, frequent expressions of negative emotions are generally considered to predict poor leadership because they result in followers having stress, lacking in motivation and so on.

However, research suggests that most companies could be making huge savings by identifying untapped and unrecognised pools of talent by focusing on negative emotional indicators when recruiting or developing leaders.

Stanford University researchers Rebecca Schaumberg and Francis Flynn, have shown that potential leaders will have negative emotional predispositions, such as guilt, which can indicate whether they are likely to be good leaders or not. They conducted a series of 3 studies which looked at whether guilt proneness is a critical characteristic of leaders.

  • In their first study, they asked 243 working people to look at a dummy profile containing fabricated responses to different scenarios. One group looked at a profile with responses showing a tendency towards guilt, the other group focused on responses showing a set of less guilt-prone behaviours.
  • In their second study, the researchers used 140 university staff and students who they had assessed on their ability to feel guilty. They asked them to form small groups to do specific tasks and rated their teammates in leadership potential based on the activities.
  • In their final study, they looked at 360 degree feedback (measuring leader effectiveness and guilt-proneness, among other indicators) from a group of managers working in a range of industries.

In all these studies, Schaumberg and Flynn found out that the research participants rated the person with higher guilt-proneness as being more capable and effective as a leader.

The key seems to be that although guilt feels unpleasant to the individual, it can be quite beneficial for the group, causing people to do what's good for the group at personal cost — and sometimes even at the expense of other individuals.

A dramatic example comes from another study, in which Schaumberg and Flynn found that guilt-prone leaders were more likely to support layoffs to keep a company profitable than were those who are less guilt-prone. Even inducing a temporary sense of guilt, the researchers found, made the leaders more likely to endorse layoffs.

They concluded that people who have a tendency to feel guilty have a higher degree of responsibility to do well, hence the potential to lead. Their guilt makes them conscious about the effects of their behaviours on others and drives them to be better leaders.

So – maybe we should be adding ‘guilt’ to the emotions and behaviours that we look for when we’re trying to predict who we should recruit or invest in to be the future leaders of our businesses – and maybe we should also be looking at ourselves and acknowledging that those guilty feelings we often try and supress when we have difficult decisions to make are actually helping us to be good leaders of our businesses today!


Adapted by Jo Clarkson from an article by Brentfield Consultancy exploring the use of Emotional Intelligence assessment in identifying effective potential leaders.

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