Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Do you feel guilty?

I have never considered guilt to be of any positive value.

Until now.

Harvard Business Report summarized a recent study by Professor Francis Flynn which has linked guilt with strong work performance. The study's findings state: "People who are prone to guilt tend to work harder and perform better than people who are not guilt-prone, and are perceived to be more capable leaders."

As much as I hate to admit it, for me, this finding did ring true. Having been a guilt-ridden person for most of my early adult life, my devotion and commitment to my former company was in many ways fueled by guilt...needing always to do an outstanding job and showing loyalty above all else, including myself.

I certainly did advance in my corporate career, but at what cost?

In my opinion, there are many costs of guilt; the greatest one being that guilt-ridden people are often disconnected from their own, authentic motivators. In fact, over the course of my life I have seen the damage of guilt, my own guilt.

Guilt leads to the inability to know intrinsically what drives you. Guilt-induced action is not a genuine or authentic action. It is an action that may serve external forces but does not serve you.

Guilt brings to question the character of the person with judgment rather than objectively focusing on the behavior of that person.

I believe that guilt creates a win/lose situation.

While guilt might drive short term results from people,as it did for me, these results are not sustainable for the long term. Ultimately, I believe that guilt-prone people burn out and feel resentment. Clearly, these are not good results that leaders would want to inspire in others.

As with many of my leadership insights, this understanding about guilt became clearer to me when I became a parent. As a parent, I wanted to raise a healthy, well-balanced, successful child with a positive self-image that can be drawn on both today and in the future. I knew that some of the old styles of parenting that reinforced guilt-induced actions were not in support of my definition of long-term success. So, I dropped many of these things from my vocabulary:

· "good girl" or "good boy" but used "good job" instead since it focuses on the behavior, not the person.

· "I am proud of you" but used "You must be so proud of yourself" instead since it reinforces self-validation not external validation.

· "you disappoint me" but used "you must feel disappointed?" instead since it reinforces self-assessment not external assessment.

Guilt causes us to look out to the world to validate ourselves; instead of having a sense of validation already built-in.

Education research supports that internal motivators, not guilt-induced motivators, generate long-term learning performance. And so, I believe that this translates into the work-place as well as at home.

As leaders, or as parents, if you want to build followers that are self-empowered, self-starters and self-initiators, you need to equip the internal drivers of those around you without guilt or fear. Given the state of business today, we certainly can see that the ways of the past won't serve us going forward. We must eliminate guilt and fear as primary motivators.

So if you are a manager or leader that uses guilt or fear as a way to motivate people, you are not building a long-term learning culture with self-empowered associates. Chances are if you are doing this to others, guilt has been your driver and motivator. And if you are guilt-prone, how do you escape this grip of guilt for yourself?

1. Don't pass it on. Watch your communication with others. Guilt is about command and control, an antiquated view of leadership.

2. Develop more well-defined boundaries. Don't take on the emotional baggage of others and solve problems that aren't yours to solve. Firm up your accountability and insist on accountability from others. Guilt often blurs the lines between people.

3. Look beyond the short term. Developing others requires a long-term view. Guilt focuses on immediate impact and control.

4. Encourage moderation in yourself and others. Extremes are often the result of guilt. Guilt perpetuates work/life balance struggles.

5. Develop a stronger internal barometer by looking inside of yourself more often. Guilt keeps us focused too much on others and not enough on ourselves.


Here's to a guilt-free work-place where you can bring your best because you, and others around you, are internally driven and motivated to do so!

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