Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A case for putting guilt-prone people in charge

Leadership research has  gained an appetite for dispositional affect, a person's tendency to feel one way more than another. Individuals who regularly express positive affects like pride or enthusiasm are seen as better leaders and produce better outcomes. Negative affects, meanwhile, are less consistently useful: although bursts of appropriate anger can help to focus efforts, frequent expressions of negative emotions lead to poor outcomes for followers such as stress and poor coordination. But recent study may change the conversation, as it suggests that a dispositional affect towards feeling guilty makes you more suitable for leadership, both in the eyes of others and through your efforts.

Stanford researchers Rebecca Schaumberg and Francis Flynn began online, asking 243 employed people to review a personality profile full of dummy responses to a set of questions, including some linked to unfortunate scenarios such as running down an animal. Half the participants looked at a fabricated profile with responses to the scenario focusing on guilt-proneness: how true is it that "You’d feel bad you hadn’t been more alert driving down the road"?  The researchers believed that participants in this group would rate the profile as having more leadership potential when it contained higher (vs lower) ratings of guilt, an emotion which leads you to review your behaviour and seek to fix things. Meanwhile the other half saw responses to shame-proneness ("You would think ‘I’m terrible’"), shame being another 'self-conscious' emotion but one that lacks the urge to act and involves simply a self-directed negative reaction. As expected, profiles high rather than low in guilt proneness were rated as more capable leaders, but levels of shame-proneness had no effect. People who are emotionally involved in redressing bad situations are seen as better leaders.

In the next study, things got real. 140 university staff and students completed surveys including a measure of guilt-proneness, before meeting in groups to carry out two exercises, one figuring out how to survive in the desert, another marketing chosen products by generating taglines and pitches. Participants then rated each team-mate on the degree of leadership that emerged during the sessions. A neat analysis technique allowed Schaumberg and Flynn to put aside relational effects (I get on best with you) and perceiver biases (I rate everyone high on leadership) to derive a true leadership score for each participant. As before, those scores were highest for the most guilt-prone.

 A final study combined survey data with that from a prior 360-degree feedback process for a group of 139 MBAs. The researchers found that 360 items that related to leader effectiveness were rated higher for individuals who expressed higher guilt proneness in the survey. This study also suggested that  guilt proneness partially makes its effect through another variable, how much responsibility to lead the participant felt. To reverse the aphorism, with great responsibility can come great power.

 The evidence then suggests that being driven by guilt to be conscious and caring about how your actions affect the wellbeing of others can help people to be perceived as leaders, emerge as leaders, and have an impact as leaders. However, Schaumberg and Flynn point out that the guilt-prone may be hesitant to take control, taking seriously the potential impact of their actions, and not wanting to displace others hopeful for the role; in summary, "the kind of people who would make outstanding leaders may, in some cases, be reluctant to occupy leadership roles." It may be the job of organisations to coax out these reluctant leaders and cultivate their responsibility to lead.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchaumberg, R., & Flynn, F. (2012). Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Crown: The Link Between Guilt Proneness and Leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0028127

1 comment: