When Guilt Is Good: Unexpected Traits That Can Help You at Work


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Wharton's Rebecca Schaumberg discusses her research on unexpected traits that can lead to better work performance.

Guilt, shame, fear and self-doubt typically are associated with negative outcomes, especially in the workplace. But Rebecca Schaumberg, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, takes a different view. In her research, Schaumberg focuses on how these seemingly unproductive traits can be used to enhance job performance and leadership. She spoke to Knowledge@Wharton about some of the surprising findings in her studies and their implications.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us about your primary research focuses.

Rebecca Schaumberg: At a broad level, I’ve been interested in the individual characteristics or employee traits that promote positive employee outcomes. That is a mouthful, but that means looking at the things that get people to work hard, work well, and to emerge and be effective in leadership roles.

Knowledge@Wharton: What have been some of the key takeaways from your research?

Schaumberg: My research has tended to take a slightly different perspective than similar work that has looked at employee characteristics that promote job performance leadership in that I tend to be interested in the unexpected qualities, with a particular focus on things that we might often write off because we think those might undermine performance.

I think what has been most surprising has been some of my work on guilt and self-reliance. With regards to guilt, this is an emotion that people have often thought can undermine performance, undermine leadership. If you walk through a self-help book aisle at a Barnes & Noble, or if you’re browsing it on Amazon, the general advice is that you want to live a guilt-free life, that very little good can come from guilt. My work challenges that and takes a broader perspective in wondering how and when guilt can be productive.

“Guilt can be good, but there are a lot of caveats, nuances and exceptions to that general trend.”

I would generally say the conclusion is that guilt can be good, but there are a lot of caveats, nuances and exceptions to that general trend. My work paints that broad picture that guilt can be good, but also tends to try to tease apart those exceptions as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: When can guilt be good?

Schaumberg: Guilt can be good to the extent that self-reproach can be minimized. Imagine a situation where you’ve done something wrong. You’ve said something that maybe offended someone, and you feel this sort of aversive emotion. Guilt is that thing where you initially feel it and you’re like, “God, I did a bad thing.” You have that initial impulse to want to try to fix it.

But guilt becomes bad when shame starts to creep in a little bit later, i.e. [thinking] “I did a bad thing, so I must be a bad person.” Once guilt starts to be associated with that negative self-reproach, we start thinking about how our actions affect us negatively and what it means about our own character. That tends to undermine any positive benefits of this emotion of guilt in the workplace.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us about your findings regarding self-reliance.

Schaumberg: I’m interested in the notion of self-reliance, particularly as it relates to leadership. I first think when you talk about self-reliance and leadership in the same breath, they seem almost antithetical. Self-reliance is about being free from the control of others and having autonomy over yourself, which seems the opposite of leadership. That is about leading and guiding others, and it is inherently an interdependent phenomenon.

But the relationship may be more complicated, in part because self-reliance both means something different and signals something different for men than it does for women. In particular, while we have often thought of self-reliance in part as the man who cannot ask for directions or cannot ask for help, that is not necessarily the case with women. Self-reliance really means and signals this capacity to do things on one’s own, but it is not at all related to a resistance to having help, a resistance to being interdependent. It’s simply a drive to not be dependent on others, which can actually spur a desire to then lead others as a form of gaining that independence.

Unfortunately, one of the stereotypes that women have to combat is that they are not independent, that they are not self-reliant. When women show self-reliance, or are seen as highly self-reliant, it’s what I call a positive expectancy violation, which basically means it’s surprising. It’s counter to our stereotypes but in a positive way.

“Self-reliance means something different and signals something different for men than it does for women.”

For men, on the other hand, there’s this concern that they can’t ask for help, or they’re not communal, or they’re not able to work with others. That’s a negative stereotype that men often have to confront. When men signal or show a high level of self-reliance, it almost confirms that potential negative stereotype of an inability to work with others. It’s that positive stereotype violation versus this negative stereotype confirmation that leads to these divergent outcomes for men and women.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a way to use these findings to your advantage at work? Can we be cognizant of what we are exhibiting or feeling?

Schaumberg: This is something I think about a lot. First of all, what can we do for ourselves in the environment, particularly when it comes to guilt and shame, to help those emotions be more productive so they’re not debilitating for us? And what can we do in the workplace do to help cultivate an environment where we get the good parts of guilt and not necessarily the bad parts?

Some of my recent work has been thinking about the situations we can create to minimize that negative self-focus that often can happen or creep in with guilt, so we can get those good parts of guilt to come out. When it comes to self-reliance, I think one of the things that is hard about it is I am always reticent to give advice where, for instance, if women feel they have a disadvantage when it comes to being seen as capable for leadership roles, then it’s also the burden on women to try to fix that problem.

“It’s about figuring out the situations that we can create to allow [you] to be the best you can be in the workplace.”

Nevertheless, I think there is something to be said about couching these leadership desires more as a desire to have autonomy from others’ control as opposed to having a desire to exert control over others. For my own work, it seems to suggest that frame difference has an advantage for women when it comes to being well-received in leadership roles.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some other topics that you are working on next?

Schaumberg: In the very similar vein of guilt and shame, I do other work on self-control and procrastination that I’m very excited about. It’s really trying to think about how we minimize what we generally think of as negative characteristics, like a tendency to procrastinate, a high tendency to experience shame, a lack of self-control. What are the situations that we can create to allow these individuals to thrive?

One of the things that we’re finding is that when these people find themselves in a hard and challenging task, there just is no more mental energy available to have these negative self-thoughts, so it frees them up to be able to perform at a higher potential. I’m really excited about it because I really don’t like to think that there are necessarily good traits or bad traits, or good emotions or bad emotions. It’s about figuring out the situations that we can create to allow [you] to be the best you can be in the workplace.

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