Chances are, you have experienced some guilt at work. Perhaps you told a coworker that her presentation was amazing when it wasn’t really that good, and later felt like you should have given her more honest feedback. It might be that you missed a deadline to get a report to a colleague, and then spent several days feeling bad about it until you got it finished.
You knew what you did was wrong, and yet you did it anyhow. Or you might have had a responsibility that you let lapse. And now you feel guilty. It is a close cousin of the emotion shame, which is more outward facing. You generally feel shame when you have done something wrong, and you feel bad because other people know about it (or you fear that other people will find out).
The feelings behind emotions (what psychologists call affect) have two dimensions: direction and strength. The direction is whether the emotion is positive or negative. The strength is the degree of energy behind the emotion. Guilt and shame are generally strongly negative emotions.
The reason this matters is that energy is a potentially useful psychological force. You experience strong emotions when you are motivationally engaged. In the case of guilt, you are actively upset at what you have done wrong.
The potential power of guilt
Therein lies the potential power of guilt—but only if you use it right.
Consider a simple physics analogy. Energy with no direction creates heat. The energy dissipates without doing anything useful. Energy with direction is work. Work can accomplish something if it is directed properly.
The same thing can happen with guilt.
In many cases, you use the energy you get from guilt poorly. You might create the psychological equivalent of heat. You pace around your office feeling bad, or you try to distract yourself by watching a TED Talk. You might even ruminate—engaging in a seemingly endless cycle of thoughts about what has gone wrong.
In other cases, you might do something with the energy that does not improve the situation. I have seen people in workplaces create elaborate schemes to cover up an error of judgment, when a simple apology might have solved the problem.
Making it productive
Both of these cases fail to use the power of guilt productively. If you find yourself feeling guilty about something at work, then there are two things you need to do. First, you want to eliminate the source of the guilt as quickly as possible so that it does not become a limitless fount of psychological energy. If you owe someone a report, finish it. If you made a mistake, make a phone call or write a note of apology. There is almost no problem in the workplace that is made better by ignoring it and hoping it will go away.
Second, you want to harness any energy you have from your feelings of guilt into the next task you can do in the situation you are in at that moment. If you’re feeling guilty while at home for something you did at work, then take an opportunity to clean out a closet that you have been ignoring, or pay your bills, or do something on the list of chores you have been ignoring. Make lemons out of lemonade.
And if you’re at work and feeling guilty, then find a task on your to-do list that will impress the people you are worried that your bad deed will have annoyed. Do that task with gusto (and skill). Make your guilt a force for repairing your relationships with the people at work.
Over time, you want to learn which of the actions you take at work you ought to feel guilty about. There are lots of things you are given to do as responsibilities—and each one probably comes with a deadline. Early on in any position you have, it can be hard to know which of those tasks are crucial, and which of those deadlines are crucial. As a result, you may feel guilty about anything that doesn’t get done perfectly and on time.
Talk with people in the office (including your supervisors) about the various tasks you have to do as a way of learning to prioritize. These conversations will help you to figure out which things that happen at work are ones that are worth feeling guilty about and which ones don’t really matter. That way, you can minimize the amount of guilt you experience. And when you do feel a bout of guilt coming on—you know how to use it well.