Guilt: a new insight into leadership effectiveness and pathologies

Guilt has been identified as factor associated with leadership effectiveness. We assess the promise of the GASP scale, and consider the absence of guilt in leadership pathologies

Citing the work of Professor Taya Cohen [image opposite], William Kremer of the BBC World Service suggests that guilt may be an under-researched factor of leader effectiveness.

Shame and guilt cultures

For background, he notes the work of American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who as early as the 1940s identified shame cultures such China and Japan, and guilt cultures such as America:

In a 1946 study, [Benedict] distinguished between “shame cultures” such as Japan and China, and “guilt cultures” such as the US. Whereas the guilty conscience is a means of social control in individualistic societies, face, honour and ostracism have the same role in Eastern societies, including China and Korea. Although the distinction is controversial, research suggests that in some cultures shame can be a springboard to positive action. For example, one study found that Chinese managers in Hong Kong used shame to resolve conflicts, while separate research has found that US managers were more likely to use shame to punish employees.

Professor Taya Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University has looked at the correlation between guilt proneness and ethical action. Her work is directed towards understanding the role of moral character traits, such as guilt proneness, and why interactions between groups are characterized by more competition, greed, and fear than are interactions between individuals.

The GASP scale

The GASP scale has been described in the scholarly journal of personality and social psychology in an article by Professor Cohen and co-workers, Introducing the GASP scale: A new measure of guilt and shame proneness.

Another gasp

The GASP scale is simple enough to produce another gasp from traditional cognitive psychologists who would deny that anything credible can be extracted from a four item inventory. [I would argue on the contrary that the more imaginative the concept, the simpler the means needed for collecting initial quantifiable data]

Claims for the emerging research

The research suggests that leadership may be associated with feelings of guilt which are translated into actions of social benefit. I have heard variations of this from friends who acknowledge a sense of guilt instilled in them through a Catholic education.

Leaping to conclusions

I find the central idea of interest although the concept is one which risks too rapid evaluation. There is need for some thorough ‘map-making and testing’ here. Maybe Benedict’s guilt/shame distinction would be a starting point.

The absence of guilt

I find Professor Cohen’s work a refreshing addition to the leadership canon. Most of my life I have tended to dismiss guilt as a residue of social shaping and something to be overcome. However, a complete absence of guilt may be a contributing factor to the behaviour of leaders deficient in ethical judgements of their actions, and thus one explanation for the much discussed dark side of leadership.

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