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As an intern, I found myself underperforming at the beginning stages of many of my internships. I struggled to learn things quickly and perform tasks perfectly; consequently, having multiple evaluation meetings became common. Sometimes I felt ashamed, other times I felt guilty. To my surprise, these similar but distinct feelings led to totally contrasting outcomes. Researchers have widely studied the implications of guilt and shame and its association with employee motivation and performance.
Guilt in the workplace promotes motivation and increase employee performance. This feeling elicits a strong will to avoid past mistakes in spite of preventing disappointment to others in the future. Unlike shaming, guilt eliminates that link between failure and incompetence or worthlessness. Instead, it facilitates heightened confidence as it motivates employees to perform better and achieve higher goals in the future. In a study by Flynn and Schaumberg (2012), it was found that guilt prone individuals were often more successful because of their desire to constantly improve as opposed to their peers who were less guilt prone. Aside from being more successful, they are also more personable which result in positive feedbacks like receiving help, more opportunities, and better peer ratings. From this, it is safe to infer that performance failures can be eased through feelings of guilt as it increases employee motivation and performance.
Management should foster an environment that incorporates guilt and stray away from shaming as one yields significantly better results. While the influence of guilt increases an individual’s motivation to improve performance and productivity in the workplace, the consequence of shaming has demonstrated negative results on the psychological mindset of employees. This causes workers to have substandard level of performance and lower productivity during work. One study depicts shaming as a trigger that leads individuals to blame their character rather than focusing on a particular behavior and its following outcome as the main attribution for their error. Such thoughts can potentially cause an individual to feel helpless and unqualified; thus, one may detach themselves from demanding tasks as opposed to taking the extra step to combat the obstacle. This degree of discomfort can lead to the abandonment of tasks that were performed erroneously to escape the stressful situation of shaming.
An empirical study further supports this by exemplifying a clear correlation indicating a link between shame and decreased motivation. In two samples of Dutch salesman, there are noticeable correlations between shame and lower sales. Researchers explained that the decline in sales derived from disengagement as a means to protect one’s self as a substitute to fixing and repairing a mistake. Undoubtedly, there is concrete evidence suggesting a strong correlation between feeling of shame resulting from performance and decreased employee motivation and productivity. Although evoking guilt in employees is much more beneficial than shame; increasing the feeling of guilt without increasing shame is quite difficult. Whether an individual feels guilt or shame depends on the perception of control they have in the situation. Such perception comes from the level of autonomy the job offers to the individual. Jobs that offer high autonomy provides substantial freedom, independence, and the right to individual in setting their own work schedules and in determining the procedures that will be used at work. On the other hand, low autonomy jobs entails a highly structured and supervised routine in the workplace.
Theoretically, a higher level of autonomy presents cognitive appraisals of control over bad performance at work, which increases guilt without increasing shame in the face of failure. In my experience, I dreaded being micromanaged during my internship as I was restricted and constantly felt doubted by my supervisors. The lack of control I felt by being micromanaged lead to many instances of poor performance. The shame led me to believe that I was not good enough to excel at the job and often resulted in early resignation during the internship. Alternatively, I flourished in places that provided high level of autonomy: freedom, trust, and responsibilities that were on my discretion. The perceived control in high level autonomy environments allowed me to view my failures as opportunities to learn and improve myself. Motivation and performance are influenced by many factors, some factors contribute negatively while others promoted it. Shame draws out feelings of worthlessness and discourage employees from correcting their mistakes as it causes individuals to blame their mistakes on internal factors.
On the other hand, guilt increases motivation and performance as it enhances self-confidence and pushes employees to set higher standards for themselves to avoid future disappointment. Many studies have shown a strong correlation between higher level of guilt and increase motivation and performance. To optimize the level of guilt, researchers found the benefit of high autonomy in the workforce. Giving employees the freedom to perform allowed room for guilt, thus, enhancing performance.
In essence, to produce more positive outcomes in the future—we must take into account the motivational force behind guilt in inducing corrective action subsequent past failures, and the unfavorable effects shame encourage.
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