How Guilt Leads to Organizational Commitment

New research by Flynn and Schaumberg (2012) has surprisingly found that guilt-prone people feel more organizational commitment. Organizational commitment, which is when employees emotionally identify with an employer, has long been studied by I-O psychologists. Researchers have traditionally argued that “good” moods typically lead to higher levels of organizational commitment and “bad” moods lead to lower levels of organizational commitment. This study argues that sometimes “bad” moods or personality characteristics actually strengthen the emotional connection to an employer. Specifically, employees who are prone to feelings of guilt in response to failure had higher levels of organizational commitment in both a lab and field study.


So what explains this finding? The authors found that guilt-prone employees feel especially bad when they have experienced setbacks or failures. In order to make up for these shortcomings, these employees put more effort into their work. Once employees invest extra effort into their work, they then rationalize this extra effort by experiencing higher levels of organizational commitment. This supports research that has found that levels of commitment may be influenced by how much effort an employee has already expended. Although this seems backwards, the authors say that people sometimes make sense of how they feel after observing and interpreting their previous behavior.


Does this mean that we should look for guilt-prone people to hire? Not necessarily, say the authors. There is still much to learn about the possible costs and benefits of people with this personality. For example, although guilt-prone people make greater effort, they may also make too much effort and be liable to burnout. Still, this study should make us think twice about the effectiveness of people with so-called “bad” moods.


Flynn, F.J. & Schaumberg, R.L. (2012). When Feeling Bad Leads to Feeling Good: Guilt-Proneness and Affective Organizational Commitment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(1), 124-133.

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