Are You Guilty of Using Guilt?

September 6th, 2013

By Maria Gamb, CEO of NMS Communications and Best-Selling author of Healing the Corporate World 

When one mentions the word “guilt” they are delivered immediately to a current or past event that evokes waves of regret and queasiness.  Sometimes it’s even a hot flash through their body. Both usually result in a facial expression that is one of undeniable discomfort. The epicenter of that emotional distress is usually attached to a mistake or lapse in judgment. On a physiological level, studies have shown that the emotion of guilt releases acid in one’s body. While I am not a physician nor scientist, I do know that an acidic environment in one’s body creates a breeding ground for disease to enter the picture. So what are we doing to ourselves and others?

We grew up with guilt, didn’t we? It’s a very familiar, almost familial, mostly unconscious communication style that has trickled into the office.

For example; my grandmother, bless her soul, would use guilt to manipulate us into doing whatever she wanted by saying things like “You wanna do something good momma?” Momma was the affectionate term she used for each of her grandchildren.  It usually went something like, “You wanna do something good momma? Take this newspaper and Windex and clean the sliding glass doors.” I’m not sure if she was just someone who knew the power of guilt or if she may have been an early day NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) master. She associated the task of cleaning her windows with being good. She guilt-tripped us into doing her bidding because if we didn’t, then we risked the judgment of being considered bad kids.

In the workplace, there are almost direct examples utilizing my grandmother’s perfected guilt technique or associating “goodness” with the action she wanted us to take. However, the more common examples are to place unrealistic cause and effects on individuals. “If this project doesn’t come through on deadline and on budget you will cause everyone in this 5000 person company to lose their jobs.”

The most commonly utilized guilt technique is to punish someone who has made a mistake; to withhold from that person acceptance, forgiveness and/or inclusion no matter the remorse, apology or actions taken to correct the situation. This person will shut down or leave. Wouldn’t you?

In doing so, you’ve limited the individual; they are unable to engage in or contribute to the team and it’s an example that if they are not perfect they will be cast aside, forever. That is not to say that there should not be consequences for a lapse in judgment or a mistake. But to what end? For how long?

I have a saying I use with my clients often when it comes to a leader dealing with a team member who made a mistake and for whatever reason they cannot seem to let go of the resentment around it; “What’s the statue of limitations on this issue?” In other words; when is the debt for the mistake paid? A bit of arguing about the issue with egregious detail follows. Then I ask, “How long do you intend to punish this person?” Silence and deep thought follow before admitting it’s unfair. Guilt is often termed the punisher and destroyer. Neither or which are terribly motivating for the person on the receiving end nor the implementer.

Oftentimes the use of guilt is completely unconscious; like a reflex. Sometimes it’s a communication style we learned from someone in our past. After a while the people around you will get tired of it.  Or sick, literally, of it (and even from it).  As I mentioned earlier, the physiological manifestation of guilt can effect one’s health. On a more obvious level, guilt stricken individuals sleep less, are more jumpy, experience shame, are more likely to take sick days and often times withdraw from the situation. All of which means the productivity of your team goes down. You lose your talent, their ideas, energy and whatever else they can contribute.

What about the self-inflicted guilt we impose upon ourselves for not being perfect? Women in particular seem to be masters at this technique more so than men. We become obsessive, talk about it, rehash every detail ad nauseam and obsess some more over whatever the infraction was that took place. In some cases it verges on self-flagellation.

The remedy is to practice forgiveness. Address the issue but forgive. Let it go. By the way, that is the same remedy for self-inflicted guilt over anything, including being a leader who may have deployed guilt in the past. One of your most powerful leadership skills is this one: Forgiveness. It is what motivate people to pick themselves up and move forward because when your team knows that mistakes are human, they are more willing to take risks, be creative and think outside the box.

As a reminder to yourself, consider posting Henry Ward Beecher’s quote over your desk: I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive.  Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note – torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one.

Link to Original Forbes article:

Short Bio for Maria Gamb:

Maria Gamb served for twenty-plus years as an executive, in businesses valued at upwards of 100 million dollars. She is founder/CEO of NMS Communications,  a consulting and training company helping executives and entrepreneurs claim their ability to lead profitable, innovative and effective businesses through balanced leadership. Maria the Amazon Top 10 best selling author of Healing the Corporate World  You can find out more about Maria and receive additional tools and tips at


Leave a Reply