Why CEOs could have a guilty conscience

Researchers say guilt-prone individuals feel more responsibility to others, which makes people see them as better leaders.

Story highlights

  • Researchers found that guilt-prone individuals are rated as better leaders than others
  • Guilt-prone people feel a great deal of responsibility to those around them, says study
  • Guilt-prone individuals may take on more work than others, but they are not more stressed

If you've got a guilty conscience, there's nothing to be ashamed of -- you're simply displaying the hallmarks of a natural leader, according to new research.

Research carried out by Becky Schaumberg and her colleague Professor Francis Flynn, at Stanford Graduate School of Business, began with the observation that within organizations there are always some people willing to take on the tasks that others won't, or take charge of groups that no one else will.

"We started to wonder 'who are these people that rise to the challenge and take responsibility for the group, and why do they do it?'" said Schaumberg.

To find out what motivates these types of individuals they conducted a series of personality tests that measured traits such as guilt proneness, shame proneness, and extraversion, among others.

Even though guilt and shame may seem similar to most people, psychologists argue that there is a crucial distinction between the two.

"Shame often makes people shy away from problems, whereas guilt makes people approach them," said Schaumberg.

"Shame can also lead to anger and blaming others for problems, whereas guilt leads people to take personal responsibility for problems," she added. "It's these differences that lead us to expect that a proneness to guilt would make people good leaders, but that a proneness to shame wouldn't."

Read more: Why we pick bad leaders

During one of the personality tests researchers tried to measure the level of guilt-proneness in individuals when faced with tricky dilemmas and scenarios that were likely to elicit feelings of guilt -- such as receiving too much change at a store and deciding to keep it.

The researchers also put the volunteers through a series of group exercises, after which each person was asked to rate their fellow group members on a variety of leadership criteria, such as leading the conversation and taking charge of the task.

"We found that guilt-prone group members were rated as having engaged in more leader-like behavior in the group exercises than the less guilt-prone members," said Schaumberg.

In their final study the researchers found similar results for actual employees when they asked former colleagues, clients, and managers of current MBA students to rate them on their leadership ability.

"We found that the more guilt-prone students were rated as better leaders than the less guilt-prone students, even when controlling for other important variables such as intelligence and extraversion," said Schaumberg.

In this study they also uncovered one of the reasons guilt proneness is related positively to leadership.

"Guilt-prone students felt a great deal of responsibility to those around them. This sense of responsibility, in turn, made people see them as better leaders," said Schaumberg.

Read more: Want to be a leader? Act like one

But this sense of responsibility towards others does not just limit itself to people. Guilt-prone workers also feel guilty towards their organizations when, for instance, they fail to live up to either their implicit or explicit expectations of their behavior.

The researchers found that guilt-prone individuals had a greater sensitivity to their obligations to their employer than less guilt-prone individuals. This strong sense of obligation, in turn, made them more supportive of layoffs as a cost-cutting strategy than less guilt-prone employees.

"We think this shows that guilt-prone individuals have a strong sense of duty and loyalty to their groups, and are willing to be good soldiers and go along with what benefits the collective, even if that means some individuals may be harmed," said Schaumberg.

But isn't there a risk that the pressures of leadership could cause a guilty type to end up consumed by guilt, turning them into a nervous wreck?

"Because guilt-prone people feel a great sense of responsibility to others, they may end up taking on more than their fair share of the task," Schaumberg conceded.

"But even though evidence in some of our other research shows that these individuals work harder than less guilt-prone individuals, they are not less happy or more stressed," she added. "In fact, we find that they have more positive feelings and sense of attachment to their organization than less guilt-prone employees."

      Route to the Top

    • Pump up the bass and 2 Unlimted can have a powerful effect on your work performance. For the better.
    • Gene Simmons of KISS performs in France

      Unleash your inner rock god, find the right partners and be a better boss, says Gene Simmons.
    • Desks made from recycled telephone poles at the Dutch design studio Heldergroen are attached to steel cables, allowing them to be lifted into the ceiling at the turn of a key. The office is in a former cacao factory near Amsterdam and was designed by Zecc Architects.

      A design studio has found a way to make employees happier and more productive by taking away their desks.
    • It's a common saying that one day all our jobs will be done by robots, but CEOs may not have expected their position in the C-suite to be under threat so soon.
    • A woman passes the logo of WEF on the second day of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos on January 27, 2011.

      Women now account for a fifth of FTSE 100 executive board members -- but is the glass ceiling in Britain finally beginning to crack?