New research shows that employees who are highly prone to feel guilty for disappointing their co-workers are among the most ethical and hard-working partners.
However, the study from researchers at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business also suggests that these highly guilt-prone people may be the most reluctant to enter into partnerships.
In their study, Drs. Scott S. Wiltermuth and Taya R. Cohen explain that guilt-prone people are valuable work partners because a concern about letting others down drives them to complete at least their fair share of the work.
“Because of this concern for the impact of their actions on others’ welfare, highly guilt-prone people often outwork their less guilt-prone colleagues, demonstrate more effective leadership, and contribute more to the success of the teams and partnerships in which they are involved,” Wiltermuth said.
However, these same behavioral tendencies also may make these individuals reluctant to enter into certain partnerships at work, he added.
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In their study, Wiltermuth, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and Cohen, of Carnegie-Mellon University, demonstrated that highly guilt-prone people may avoid forming interdependent partnerships with people they perceive to be more competent than themselves.
That’s because getting a greater benefit than their partner could trigger feelings of guilt, the researchers explain.
“It may come as a surprise, but our findings demonstrate that people who lack competence may not always seek out competence in others when choosing work partners,” said Wiltermuth.
In studies where Wiltermuth asked participants with whom they would like to partner to complete a task, highly guilt-prone people with less knowledge or skill in that area were less likely to choose the most competent partner. They were afraid to contribute less to the task than their partner and let them down.
The experiments also found that highly guilt-prone people were also more likely than others to opt to be paid on their performance alone. They also opt to be paid based on the average of their performance and that of others whose competence was more similar to their own.
“Guilt proneness reduces the incidence of unethical behavior,” Wiltermuth said. “Highly guilt-prone people are conscientious. They are less likely to free-ride on others’ expertise, and they will sacrifice financial gain out of concern about how their actions would influence others’ welfare.”
Those in supervisory roles can use these findings to create the most effective dynamics in the workplace and increase productivity, according to the researchers.
“Managers could try to ensure that highly guilt-prone people are creating the partnerships and perhaps even assuming leadership roles on teams, despite highly guilt-prone people’s fear that by accepting these leadership positions they might be putting themselves into position to let their teammates down,” Wiltermuth concluded.