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Is Guilt Making You a Better Employee?

Topics: Work Culture
Worker feeling guilt
Image Credit: Pexels / Tim Gouw

Are feelings of guilt driving you to show up to work on that first nice day of spring or when a friend comes in town with surprise tickets to a baseball game?

If you’re letting the perfectly human feelings of guilt drive your work ethic, you might be that real “go-getter” at work everyone’s talking about, with an impeccable attendance record and even a bunch of long nights and weekends spent at the office as well. While you’re a great worker, you might actually be making yourself a feel worse.

What Guilt Does to Us

If you think of some of the most remarkable characters of great literature who were wracked with guilt – like the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart“, or perhaps Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – you know how powerful the emotion can be. It can drive our actions because it is such a powerful feeling, one that really gets inside our head. You might feel guilty as a result of feelings of wanting to do something, or in the regret of not doing something you think you should have. Any time your brain says, “I really probably should….” that’s likely a feeling of guilt rearing its head.

Why Guilt Makes Us “Good” at Work

When it comes to doing what you “should” at work, guilt can often guide our thoughts and deeds. You “should” help your team complete a project on deadline instead of skipping out early to go to the movies. You “should” avoid saying bad things at work in front of sensitive clients because they might decide not to work with the company. You’d feel guilty if you said something that then caused them to run for the hills. Guilt (or the threat of guilt) can keep us “in line” and acting on our best behavior. It’s that powerful.

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Why Guilt Can Manipulate Us 

Say you think you did something to ruin a project, like accidentally deleting a final draft off the server that caused everyone to start over again. You’d probably feel like hitting your head against your desk every few minutes. If this sounds like something out of a book, you’d be right. Psychologists even call this the “Dobby” effect after a certain house elf in Harry Potter books.

“In one study, students who were made to feel guilty by depriving another student of lottery tickets (worth only a few dollars) were actually willing to give themselves electric shocks to signal their remorse,” writes Guy Winch at Psychology Today.

It turns out we’re the master manipulators of our own guilty feelings.

Winch notes that guilt can gnaw at us, causing distraction and an inability to concentrate.

“Unresolved guilt is like having a snooze alarm in your head that won’t shut off,” Winch writes. “Having unresolved guilt can have an extremely detrimental effect because guilty feelings make it difficult to think straight.”

So while you may try to double down and focus in order not to repeat mistakes that lead you to feel guilty for some small “failure” at work, that guilt actually gnaws at you, again and again, until you just jump up one day and cry, “Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

Or was that just Lady Macbeth?

How to Fix That Guilt

Recognizing guilty feelings can help us to not get trapped in a cycle where we’re smashing our heads on the desk then wondering why we only get head banging done each day. If you need to take care of business instead of procrastinating (and then feeling guilty), then get your hustle on. If you dropped the ball for a big project, talk to your boss or teammates about it, and assess how things could have gone more smoothly, then make changes for next time.

Being present, taking time to make careful observations, and making changes to avoid catastrophe are all tools you can use to keep things going smoothly, instead of plotting someone’s murder and then being driven mad by your role in their death. Just saying.


When has guilt made you act a certain way at work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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