We hear a lot about why women should stop apologizing. Too often, the conversation ends there. Instead, we ought to explore what motivates this behavior: guilt.

“When I tell people I study guilt and shame, they usually ask what I’m talking about,” says Wharton Professor Rebecca Schaumberg. “It’s as if these emotions are dark secrets or rare occurrences. But they’re not — they’re extremely common, especially at work.”

Repressing guilt is a shame, namely because it’s truly a positive, prosocial emotion.

“Guilt shows you have a conscience,” says Taya Cohen, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Carnegie Mellon. Guilt is a sign that you care about your impact, and that you’re mature enough to analyze and take responsibility for your actions.

Guilt is natural, and evolutionary psychologists suggest that it emerged from traditional dominance hierarchies. Many mammalian species express guilt and shame by constricting their bodies or covering their faces to signal subordinated status and protect their group standing.

Moving from dominance to prestige-based hierarchies, humans retained our disposition toward feeling guilt when we violate norms, and when we fear being abandoned. Above all, our mental health depends on feeling like we belong.

Considering women’s historically submissive role and the relatively modern concept of gender equality, it’s not surprising that we are more guilt-prone. While research has debunked almost every character trait being gender-determined, guilt is the exception. Women are more likely to be guilt- and shame prone by one standard deviation. (That’s huge.)

If we can’t stop feeling guilty, and feeling guilty isn’t all that bad, why do we still feel like crap?

“Guilt and shame become problematic when they lead to negative self-evaluation and ruminating,” Schaumberg explains. When we spiral into questioning whether we made the right decision, were too harsh, worked too hard, are good at our jobs, will never be good at our jobs — that’s when guilt becomes paralyzing and non-functional.

At this point, you’re attacking your own character. You’re no longer attuned to other people. This rumination paralyzes us from making the right decisions for our businesses and families. It also leads us to avoid guilt-prone situations going forward — including promotions.

To resolve this paralysis and avoidance, we need to focus on the positive motivators of guilt. Namely, responsibility.

In German, the word for guilt, “schuld,” is the same as the word for debt. This parallel helps explain why leaders are particularly guilt-prone, especially during crises.

While Schaumberg’s team predicted that guilt-prone people may avoid the responsibility of leadership, the opposite proved true. People who are highly guilt-prone are even more likely to emerge as leaders, in part because they feel such a deep sense of responsibility to serve others.

This profound sense of duty is what makes us exceptional leaders. But it also leads to conflicting feelings, especially when we’re forced to choose between decisions like laying off half of our team, or keeping them, and ensuring the company fails.

“The hardest decision leaders have to make is between integrity and empathy,” Schaumberg explains. “No matter what you do, you’re either violating the norm of empathy, or you’re violating the norm of integrity.”

Part of being an effective leader is realizing the difference between being empathetic — a wonderful and necessary disposition — and letting empathy overcome your integrity and commitment to long-term success. Importantly, that doesn’t mean you have to become a robot.

“People often think it’s hypocritical to convey support, then take an action that harms someone,” Schaumberg explains. “But when you express empathy and apologize well — explaining your integrity, guilt, and the principles you need to stand on — even if you don’t act in someone’s interest, you mitigate pain for all parties.”

Perhaps guilt and apologizing aren’t the problem after all — it’s believing in this either-or mentality.

Published May 15, 2020