People who tend to feel guilty make some of the best business leaders, according to a new study.
Conducted by researchers at Stanford University, the study revealed that guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, which in turn makes others see them as leaders.
As part of the study, groups of up to five strangers took personality tests measuring traits, including guilt proneness, shame proneness and extraversion. Following the tests, the researchers put each group in a lab and, without designating a leader, had them perform two group tasks, such as outlining a marketing campaign for a new product.
In all of the groups, those who were most likely to be judged by others as the group's leaders also scored highest in guilt proneness on the personality test.
In addition, guilt proneness predicted emerging leadership more so than extraversion, a well-known marker of leadership, according to the study.
Becky Schaumberg, a Stanford doctoral candidate in organizational behavior who conducted the research, said in group discussions, guilt-prone members seemed to the rest of the group to be making more of an effort than others to ensure everyone’s voice was being heard, to lead the discussion and to generally take charge.
"The group was picking up on those behaviors," Schaumberg said.
The researchers also studied incoming MBA students by asking their former managers, clients and co-workers to evaluate their traits of leadership effectiveness, such as communication skills and the ability to motivate others.
In this real-world setting, the study also found a strong link between a participant’s guilt proneness and the extent to which others saw the person as a leader.
The key seems to be that although guilt feels unpleasant to the individual, it can be quite beneficial for the group, causing people to do what’s good for the group at personal cost, according to the study.
The research shows those who harbor the most guilt also do what’s good for the organization at the expense of other employees. The study revealed that guilt-prone managers were more likely to support layoffs to keep a company profitable.
It’s not that guilt-prone managers don’t feel bad having to lay people off, it’s that guilt seems to create a greater sense of responsibility to the organization, according to Schaumberg.
"If people feel guilty toward their organizations, they’ll behave in ways that make sure they live up to the organization’s expectations," Schaumberg said. "These behaviors might not look like what we usually think of as guilt."
While there are many ways of responding to mistakes or problems, including blaming others or yourself, Schaumberg said the most constructive response, and the one people seem to recognize as a sign of leadership, is to feel guilty enough to want to fix the problem.
"When thinking about what traits are important for leaders to possess, there tends to be a focus on what people do well," she said. "But we know that people make mistakes and mess up, and it’s important to look at how people respond to those mistakes because that’s a clue to who they are."
Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance business and technology writer who has worked in public relations and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.