More Guilt, Less Shame

Use guilt as a motivator for yourself and your team.

Posted Jan 24, 2014

Woman holding her head in her hands

Feeling guilty?

If you want high performance for yourself or your team, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I see the value of discomfort in improving performance all the time. Now a new model published in Organization Science is encouraging you to see the value of a very uncomfortable emotion: guilt.

In their article, Guilt by Design: Structuring Organizations to Elicit Guilt as an Affective Reaction to Failure, Vanessa Bohns and Francis Flynn suggest that you can get motivational benefits not just from the positive feelings you experience after success, but also from the negative feelings you have to endure after failure. There is one caveat: Your negative feelings must be focused on guilt, not shame.

Shame versus Guilt

Guilt exists when you see that your actions (or inaction) caused harm to others.  Shame exists when you see that your actions caused harm to how others view you. Shame is a very inward-focused emotion whereas guilt is outwardly-focused.

The authors cite extensive research on shame and guilt in the paper. In a nutshell, guilt tends to inspire constructive reactions such as engaging, apologizing, and repairing the damage. When you feel guilt, you make more situation specific attributions for failure, which make it more likely you will change your behavior and find future success. In contrast, shame creates destructive reactions such as hostility, withdrawal, or resistance. When you feel shame, you use a more personal and enduring explanation for your failure. That erodes your self-esteem, destroys confidence, and can reduce the likelihood that you will perform more effectively in the future.

Practical Tips 

There are a few simple ways that you can direct your teammates’ emotions toward guilt and away from shame.

  1. Too many teams set goals through a shrouded one-on-one process. I highly recommend team goal-setting sessions. If your team doesn’t do that, do it yourself. Share your goals with your teammates so everyone knows how their success or failure impacts the team. Connectedness is key.
  2. Share consequences of failure in terms of the group. Rather than “you will never rise up the ladder if you keep slipping up like that,” you want to try “our team needs you to deliver to have a chance at meeting our numbers.” The same applies when you’re thinking about your own failures. Frame the consequences around what the team needed from you.
  3. Focus discussions about failures on the situational or behavioral causes and avoid more personal attributions.  Highlight things within your teammate’s control that could have been different. If the review focuses on what’s wrong with or missing from the person herself, it will lead to shame. Do the same for your own learning: what could I have done differently, not what is wrong with me that caused me to fail.
  4. (For team leaders) Use team based rewards to create a highly motivating sense of guilt.  Team members will be keen to deliver their part so that teammates don’t lose their shot at a reward or incentive. Individual rewards are more likely to trigger shame reactions. Even if your compensation system is individual-based, find other ways to create team-based rewards: even a pizza party will make a difference.

We’d all prefer that our team experiences stay positive. But given how often things don’t turn out as well as we’d like, it’s important for you and your team to be motivated by negative experiences as well.  The secret is more guilt and less shame. 

For more on the importance of getting comfortable being uncomfortable, check out this post:

Want High Performance? Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable