Many leaders are confused about what guilt is. From a very young age we are taught that if we do something we shouldn’t do or don’t do something we should do, we should feel guilty. We are told that if we don’t feel guilty, there is something wrong with us.
But what is guilt, and is it helpful?
Leaders often create a disempowering story that guilt is the source of their action or success – “without guilt I wouldn’t get things done.” But is it true? Have you ever done anything without first feeling guilty? I would guess the answer is yes, so guilt definitely isn’t the only source of action. But is it even a source of action at all?
Have you ever felt guilty about something, and not taken action? You notice a piece of litter and don’t pick it up, and then feel guilty, but still don’t pick it up? Yeah, me too. So guilt doesn’t always lead to action. Maybe we just need more guilt – perhaps there is a magical quantity of guilt that when exceeded, will cause action.
Have you ever done something you felt really guilty about, but still didn’t take action? Yeah, me too. So if guilt is a cause of action it doesn’t seem very reliable or predictable. Perhaps it isn’t a cause of action at all. So then what is it?
The one thing that seems fairly reliable and predictable is that guilt makes us feel bad. A little guilt, a little feeling bad, a lot of guilt, a lot of feeling bad. When the bad feeling is gone, we say “I don’t feel guilty anymore.” As much as we may appear irrational sometimes, we don’t actually do anything that doesn’t have some sort of payoff. So what is the payoff for feeling guilty? It restores us to “good person” status.
How does feeling bad make us a “good person?” Well if you did something wrong and didn’t feel bad, you would be a bad person – according to your parents and society. Everyone knows that only a psychopath doesn’t feel bad when they do something bad. Personally I don’t put a lot of stock in things that “everyone knows” – there was a time that everyone knew the world was flat.
Once we have restored our position as a “good person,” we sometimes let ourselves off the hook. Feeling guilty is our self administered punishment for doing something wrong. And often we think that makes up for doing something wrong. Small “crime,” a little punishment/guilt – large “crime,” a lot of punishment/guilt.
When you see what guilt is and how it really works, you start to see that guilt is the salve we put on ourselves so we don’t have to be responsible for something. I felt guilty about not picking up the trash – so that’s proof that I care about the environment, I’m still a good person. I felt guilty about what I did to my team – so that’s proof that I do care about them, I’m still a good leader. But in both cases, I didn’t create responsibility, or clean up the mess.
Guilt actually gets in the way. If I didn’t have guilt to restore my standing as a “good person,” my only option would be to take responsibility for what I did or didn’t do. Once I am responsible and have cleaned up the situation, then I have restored my integrity as a leader – I prefer the concrete concept of integrity to the fluid concept of “good person” . I don’t really know what makes for a “good person,” but it does occur to me that being responsible and having integrity makes for a good leader.
Some leaders really want to hang on to their guilt and will claim that guilt is the source of responsibility. These leaders will then think making other people feel guilty is a convenient – and maybe even necessary – way to make them responsible. This is a very disempowering story of responsibility because as the feeling of guilt comes and goes, so will their responsibility.
Perhaps responsibility, integrity and action are simply things we create, or don’t – no guilt required. Perhaps our parents were slightly off the mark when they said that if you don’t have a guilty conscience you are a bad person. If we had learned that integrity, being responsible and cleaning up the mess is what makes for a “good person” – we might see that guilt and feeling bad isn’t only not required, but can get in the way.