Taya Cohen

Moral character is a broad dimension of personality that captures a person’s tendency to think, feel, and behave in ethical ways. It subsumes a number of more specific traits. For example, guilt proneness is an important moral character trait. People who have high levels of guilt proneness have a strong conscience — they feel guilty when they make mistakes or let others down. Moreover, they can anticipate this [feeling] and take proactive steps to avoid behaving badly in the first place. In my work, I have demonstrated that employees with high levels of guilt proneness have better job performance.

There are implications here for leaders, too. I like this quote by the psychologists Robert Hogan and Robert Kaiser: “Who we are determines how we lead.” Leaders who are more guilt-prone are seen by their subordinates as more effective. One of the reasons guilt proneness is such an important character trait, and the reason it is associated with more effective leadership, is its link to a sense of personal responsibility: “I wouldn’t want to let people down, and I’m personally responsible for doing the right thing, for helping my team, for not free riding on others’ contributions.”

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