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Guilt Proneness Makes You a Good Leader

Update Date: May 03, 2012 03:07 PM EDT

What are some traits that people tend to associate with a good business leader? Charisma? Communication? Administration?

Surprisingly, a new study by Stanford University Graduate School of Business said the tendency to feel guilty makes someone a good business leader.

“Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders,” said Becky Schaumberg, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at the school.

Schaumberg conducted the research with Dr. Francis Flynn, professor of organizational behavior.

“If people feel guilty toward their organizations, they’ll behave in ways that make sure they live up to the organization’s expectations,” Schaumberg said.

In the study, an online personality test was given to groups of four or five strangers. The personality test measured traits such as guilt proneness, shame proneness, and extraversion.

The study clarified the differences between guilt and shames that someone who feels guilty tries to fix the mistake while someone who is ashamed tries to shrink away from the error.

After the personality test, the group went to a lab. Without designating a leader, two group tasks, requiring about an hour to perform, were given to the group. When the task was over, the members of the group rated each other on leadership qualities.

The result showed that people who tend to lead the group also scored highest in guilt proneness. In addition, guilt proneness predicted leadership qualities more than extraversion did.

Schaumberg said guilt proneness is an “exception” to the general trend that signifies leadership, because previous studies have shown leaders tend to think positively while guilty feeling denotes something negative.

In another study, the researchers surveyed former managers, clients, and co-workers of incoming MBA students and reinforced the relationship between leadership and guilt proneness.

According to Schaumberg, people want a responsible person to be their leader. People make mistakes, and a person who is prone to guilty feeling want to fix the problem.

“When thinking about what traits are important for leaders to possess, there tends to be a focus on what people do well. But we know that people make mistakes and mess up, and it’s important to look at how people respond to those mistakes because that’s a clue to who they are,” said Schaumberg.

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