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Do Guilty People Make Better Employees?

Research suggests that guilt-prone people are the fairest, hardest working, and most motivated. Maybe not all guilt is a bad thing?

Do Guilty People Make Better Employees?
[Photo: Flickr user Ranna Nicolau]

Imagine you’re working on an important, portfolio-worthy project with an overachieving coworker.

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You’re getting equal recognition, but you know you didn’t commit the same level of time and care to it as she did–whether you’re overbooked with other tasks and can’t devote your heart and soul to this, or just not on par with her depth of knowledge, you know that deep down, you don’t deserve the same credit for it.

Guilt is, of course, a negative emotion: at its worst, it keeps us continuously apologizing for our life choices and gives us a sinking feeling when we take time to ourselves. But could guilt-prone people make the best people to work with?

Recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the guilt-prone hold an above-average concern for fairness–they are acutely aware of wrongdoings and disparities–which keeps them honest, and makes them ideal teammates.

Hating to disappoint others drives these people to push themselves further than their self-assured peers. “Because of this concern for the impact of their actions on others’ welfare, highly guilt-prone people often outwork their less guilt-prone colleagues, demonstrate more effective leadership and contribute more to the success of the teams and partnerships in which they are involved,” said Scott S. Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business. When they’re forced into unbalanced partnerships, the fear of letting others down motivates them to do better.

They’re also more likely to sacrifice financial gain for the welfare of others, making them a moral anchor when projects get unwieldy or grow quickly.

The down side: getting to those partnerships in the first place is more complicated for the guilt-prone. They’re more hesitant to seek collaboration with those they see as more skilled. Whether it’s a heightened sense of self-awareness or a symptom of impostor syndrome, guilt-prone need an extra push to join forces with skilled colleages and take on roles outside of their comfort zones.

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Asking for raises and promotions also requires steeling of nerves and suspending of self-consciousness. The studies found that guilt-prone employees are more likely to opt for performance-based pay and compare their compensation to colleagues they see as comparable. That sounds good, but when you view yourself as less capable and deserving of fair pay based on a guilt complex, it becomes a stumbling block.

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About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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