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Guilt Brings You to Work—Even If You Don’t Like It

Posted by Lisa Cunningham | June 7, 2018 | Comments (1)

Are you a guilty person? Guilt, rather than job satisfaction, may be the motivating factor that gets you out of bed in the morning and into the office, according to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Rebecca Schaumberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Francis J. Flynn, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, studied the motivating effects of guilt in relation to workplace attendance.

For their first study, Schaumberg and Flynn used a sample of 334 customer service agents at seven call centers for a major telecommunications company in the southwestern United States. Participants completed an online survey that explored how they felt about their jobs as well as a test to assess their “guilt proneness”—the tendency to experience negative feelings about personal wrongdoing.

“The person will anticipate guilt for failing to fulfill the expectations of others by not doing something they should have done,” explains Schaumberg. “But it’s not a tendency to feel guilty to colleagues or family or a husband or spouse. It’s generalized.”

Researchers then analyzed four months’ worth of the participants’ attendance records and found that those with a low degree of guilt proneness tended to show up if they were happy with their work but were more likely to miss work if not as happy. Job satisfaction was unrelated to absenteeism for those with a high degree of guilt proneness.

“People who have guilt proneness show up even if they don’t like their job as much,” Flynn says.

Schaumberg and Flynn got similar results in a second survey, where they studied 227 workers across a range of industries. In this survey, they also explored the effects of agreeableness and moral identity. These traits influence absenteeism in a similar way to guilt proneness.

“Guilt is good,” Flynn says. “It actually has a lot in common with positive emotions.”

In past studies, the researchers found that highly guilt-prone people have a higher degree of commitment to organizations and are routinely rated in performance reviews as being more capable leaders than counterparts who are less prone to feeling guilty.

So, if guilt is good for business, how can organizations capitalize? Hint: It’s not forcing employees to feel more guilt.

“Clearly, we want to get a handle upon who these highly guilt-prone people are, because they’re outstanding employees. But we don’t want to try creating them from scratch,” Flynn says. “People don’t like having a guilt trip placed on them.”

The researchers suggest that managers should be more aware of the psychological diversity of individuals in the workforce.

“If we better understand a person’s qualities, we can better create an environment in which the person can thrive,” Schaumberg explains.

Lisa Cunningham headshot

Lisa Cunningham

Lisa Cunningham is ICF’s Social Media Specialist, as well as a freelance writer and social media consultant. She holds a master’s degree in professional writing with a focus on web content development from Chatham University and a bachelor’s degree in English writing and communication from the University of Pittsburgh.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (1)

  1. danise.smit@rs-components.com says:

    Interesting read. I am definitely guilt-prone…never named it that before though! Some of the highest performers I know are driven by guilt!

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