More than other dimensions of your life which you consider to be more personal, more you, it is the workplace that reveals your truest nature. Thrown in with a "team" of unknown others, you must find some way of belonging, and how you go about doing that says everything about you — everything about how much you value yourself. A new study suggests managers would be wise to not only hire but also champion those people who have a naturally guilty nature. While guilt-prone people are among the most ethical and hard-working employees, they also may be the most reluctant to take their rightful place in business partnerships.

“Because of [a] concern for the impact of their actions on others’ welfare, highly guilt-prone people often outwork their less guilt-prone colleagues, demonstrate more effective leadership, and contribute more to the success of the teams and partnerships in which they are involved,” Dr. Scott S. Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, stated in a press release.

Guilt Complex vs. Guilt-Prone

While many people like to bandy about the phrase “guilt complex,” psychologists tend to reserve this special term for people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as witnessing an accident or death, which they (wrongfully) believe they somehow caused or might have prevented. A true guilt complex, then, is deep-seated and based on very real trauma. To explain: Older children are generally made to feel responsible for their younger sisters and brothers. If an older child witnessed a younger brother getting hit by a car, for instance, she might believe she could have prevented the accident, even though it may be clear to others there was nothing she could have done. The result would be a guilt complex.

Guilt-prone people, on the other hand, are simply those with a tendency to be over-sensitive to the opinions of others combined with an over-active sense of responsibility toward others. Conscientious, guilt-prone people believe any poor outcome in work or life reflects on themselves alone, even when others are involved; perfectionists, they believe they can do better… always. They are the kind who undersell themselves on a job interview rather than oversell and disappoint.

In five studies, Wiltermuth and his co-researcher, Dr. Taya R. Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University, explored how guilt-prone tendencies shaped a person’s choices within work settings. When Wiltermuth asked experiment volunteers to choose a partner, for instance, highly guilt-prone people were less likely to choose the most competent partner if they themselves had limited experience or expertise in the task area. The reason? They were afraid they would contribute less — they feared letting down their partner more than they feared hurting themselves.

In another experiment, Wiltermuth and Cohen found highly guilt-prone people to be more likely than others to choose being paid based entirely on individual performance. More than others, they also opted to be paid based on the average of their performance and that of others whose competence was more similar to their own, rather than pulling down those who perform more successfully.

"Guilt proneness reduces the incidence of unethical behavior," Wiltermuth noted. "Highly guilt-prone people are conscientious. They are less likely to free-ride on others' expertise, and they will sacrifice financial gain out of concern about how their actions would influence others' welfare.”

Want to succeed in business? Hire and encourage those who worry most about their responsibility to others: the guilty.

Source: Wiltermuth SS, Cohen TR. "I'd Only Let You Down:" Guilt Proneness and the Avoidance of Harmful Interdependence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2014.