Another section from the chapter on Emotional Competence in the book on The Inner Work of Leadership I worked on a few years ago. Rereading these pieces I’m struck by how dense they all are – they could do with a few stories and a loosening of the language to make them a little less intense, and in the context of a blog, a few images. Nevertheless I think the material is useful, so I’m putting it out.

Guilt And Shame

Like anxiety and anger, guilt and shame are twin emotions, although in this case the distinction between them is not temporal in nature, but social: we feel guilt individually and we feel shame in relation to others. It is also true that like many emotions the experiences of guilt or shame can be a wholesome sign of a healthy emotional life, or the unhealthy manifestation of neuroses. This complexity has led some commentators to dismiss both guilt and shame as unhelpful and unhealthy, whereas a sensitivity to them can be a useful guide in decision making – if only to alert one to the likely reactions of others!

Guilt is the experience of falling short of our values and of the standards of behaviour that we expect of ourselves.  It is the sense or feeling that arises when you do something that you feel or believe you should not do. Complexity begins to arise because the reason for feeling guilt or shame may be well or ill-founded, and may be compounded by the fact that certain behaviours may be culturally taboo without being morally reprehensible. Such complexities can make these feelings difficult to recognise, especially as they are likely to be mixed up with other feelings.

One near enemy of guilt is that of guilty fear, which is the emotion felt when we fear being caught for something that we know is not accepted, but about which we feel little personal concern. A good example is the swirl of nausea we feel when we see a police car with its lights flashing in the rear-view mirror when driving a little over the speed limit. If the feeling passes when the police car zooms straight past then it was guilty fear, as genuine and healthy guilt requires expiation to disperse.

Such expiation seems to require confession, and such confession must be to someone who can receive the confession appropriately, usually a wronged party or a superior. If you feel a genuine sense of guilt at having manipulated an expense claim in your own favour it will not clear your conscience to confess to an embezzler. What it might do is subvert the feeling of guilt through rationalisation – if he does it then why shouldn’t I? – and the desire to do this is testament to the level of discomfort that the feeling of guilt engenders. Another attempt to sidestep guilt  (and shame) is seen in the passing of the ‘hot potato’ of blame. Leaders must avoid getting caught up in such games, and accept or allocate responsibility appropriately without colluding in a blame culture.

Unhealthy guilt has also been described as the result of anger turned against oneself, perhaps because the catalyst of the anger is someone who you feel you should not feel anger towards. It is important to clear the air as soon as possible in such situations, as there is a risk of a feedback loop creating ever-greater feelings of incapacitating guilt. On those occasions when you do act in a way that causes another harm or pain, take responsibility for your actions and where appropriate apologise and make amends – while remembering that how another person feels is primarily their own responsibility.

Shame is the feeling we have in response to the public exposure of wrongdoing, and as such is strongly culturally determined. Highly homogeneous cultures, those with high standards of civic responsibility, and groups seeking to define themselves strongly against perceived threats to identity will be likely to have strong shame cultures. Those in more individualistic and heterogeneous situations will be likely to experience less shame, as there will be fewer collectively held values.

Shame is perhaps most familiar to us from our adolescent years, when any minor divergence from accepted group norms is the cause of genuine anguish. It is both a product of strong group identity, and also a force that encourages it. As such it can be an effective way for a leader to engender good practice within an organisation. Of course the near enemy of this is collusive group-think, where a folie a deux becomes a folie a corps such as we have seen in a number of corporations in recent years.

In order to be able to work effectively with these feelings you need to have a clear sense of your own value system, and of the ways in which your values might come into conflict with the value systems of the organisation for which you are working, those of your upbringing and those of the broader culture. Such a sense of values will be constantly evolving as you learn, develop and mature. Leaders are constantly making choices, and almost all of these choices will disappoint or adversely effect one party or another. While it is important to remain sensitive to the human consequences of your decisions, if you allow yourself to be hobbled by guilt or shame you will cease to be a leader.