When Guilt is Good

Whether it’s in leading a team you were part of, or in holding colleagues to account, one sensation you can experience is that of guilt.  David Presswell wonders why.

Guilt is one of the most uncomfortable emotions we can experience.  So it is one we tend to try and avoid, and it can come as an unwelcome shock in adulthood that ‘doing the right thing’ is no guarantee of good conscience.  How can this be when we were taught as children that conscience is a direct consequence of doing right (a sense of innocence) or doing wrong (a sense of guilt)?

A thought experiment can bring the issue into focus.   Imagine you are a member of a gang or the Mafia, and someone attacks and kills a gang or family member.  You have been brought up under a code of honour that you should revenge such an instance.  How would you feel if, for whatever reason, you could not avenge them?  The emotion you are likely to feel is one of guilt.

The German psychologist, Bert Hellinger, was struck by accounts that many Nazis had committed some of the most heinous crimes of the Twentieth Century without at the time any sense of guilt.  It was an insight that led him to question whether conscience might be far less to do with any absolute definition of ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’, and much more with whether we sense a particular action allows or disqualifies us from remaining part of the group with which we identify.  In other words, to understand our conscience as a sixth sense designed continually to detect whether or not ‘we belong’.

This makes sense in terms of our ancestral past where to be excluded from our tribe was to die.  It simply wasn’t possible to survive as a lone human being.  To protect us from such a fate we have developed an exquisitely honed sense of whether any particular action risks excluding us.  We start to feel guilty at the point at which we come close to stepping beyond the boundary of our own tribe, into that of another.

We may recall something similar from our own lives, especially that moment when we started first to experience how other families did things differently to our own.  Maybe it was what they ate, when or how, or how differently they celebrated festivals such as Christmas or Eid.  There may well have been a sense of excitement that came with this novelty, but equally a sense of guilt in our own participation – especially so if we came from a family where there were rigid rules or rituals .  Yet if any couple is to form a partnership and create a household with unique rituals of its own, both parties must necessarily move beyond those of their family of origin.  And, with that, both must tolerate any resulting sense of guilt.

As a coach, I come across this phenomenon most commonly at the point individuals know they are leaving a particular team or company but have not yet been able to disclose this to their (soon-to-be erstwhile) colleagues.  It can feel uncomfortable, even painful, for them to know they have covertly made arrangements to separate themselves, and it can come as a huge sense of genuine relief to announce their departure.

Yet a sense of being neither fully ‘in’ nor ‘out’ is fundamental to the effective discharge of a large range of roles.  For example, for those working in control functions such as Risk, their job is on the one hand to be part of the company that pays their salary and, on the other, to hold their own internal stakeholders to account for their business decisions and personal conduct.

They are required to occupy an awkward space in which they cannot identify too closely with their colleagues (in case they lose their independence of perspective) but cannot become too distant (lest they lose rapport).  Like the members of AC-12 in the drama Line of Duty they have continually to hold the tension between these two positions.  In order to be effective these professionals have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

The same is arguably true for any leadership position, particularly those where an individual has stepped up from amongst their peers.  They will need to remain part of their original team whilst themselves in all likelihood becoming a member of a new, more senior one.  Their sense of belonging can become complicated.  They will have to foster an inclusive team spirit amongst their direct reports if they are to feel fully engaged, yet retain sufficient personal distance to make potentially unpopular decisions about who is in and who is out of this group.

This is not easy, but rather than trying to assuage the discomfort by opting for one or the other, overly including or excluding oneself, it can help to recognise these feelings come with the territory.  In fact, we can start to see these uncomfortable, ’both in and out’ feelings as not just a consequence but as a requirement for any significant level of personal development and broadening of responsibility.  To see a sense of guilt as the price we pay for growth.

David Presswell

Partner, Aretai LLP

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