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Feeling Guilty at Work - Main

Do you find yourself feeling guilty at work?

Perhaps you feel like you’re not doing enough or you feel bad about taking some downtime.

There are lots of potential reasons that leaders might feel guilty at work. Guilt is not a pleasant emotion.

So in this post, I’m going to take a look at some of the situations that lead to feelings of guilt, and a simple process to work through it.

Common Situations Leading to Feeling Guilty at Work

I’ve noticed that thoughtful leaders can fall prone to feelings of guilt.

Not because they necessarily have done anything to feel guilty about. No, I think it’s because they are naturally inclined to think about the impact they have on others.

Thoughtful leaders also have a tendency to be quite introspective, which means they are often acutely aware of their thoughts and feelings.

So what do leaders feel guilty about? Well, I’ve noticed a few situations that seem to crop up time and time again, including:

  • Taking downtime. Whether it’s taking a lunch break, a single day off or a week-long holiday, downtime can be a source of guilt for many leaders.
  • Delegating work. Some leaders struggle to delegate, because they feel they are placing a greater burden on their team who may already be working hard.
  • Working reasonable hours. Many leaders feel compelled to work longer, because they feel guilty leaving on time even when they been effective throughout the day.
  • Holding people accountable. Some leaders feel guilty when they need to hold their team members accountable. This may be because it involves providing negative feedback which may make the team member uncomfortable.

These are just a few situations that I notice can cause feelings of guilt amongst the thoughtful leaders out there.

Of course, you might be feeling guilty because you have actually done something wrong. And this is a good signal for you to rectify any wrong you have caused.

But for these other guilt-filled situations, let’s look at what might be beneath the guilt, so we can potentially think differently about it.

Learn More:  3 Ways to Reduce Unhelpful Thinking.

Invisible Rules and Feeling Guilty at Work

Something I have discovered about myself is that I am occasionally vulnerable to being a compulsive rule-follower.

Following rules is often a good thing, of course, because it keeps our society and our workplaces in some sort of order.

However, following rules is not helpful if those rules do not really exist… and come from inside our own heads!

Some of these rules come from the “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” that we tell ourselves.

You know the ones:

“I shouldn’t leave early”

“I should be doing more <something>”

“I should be more successful”

“I should be able to handle this”.

It’s worth thinking about where these expectations are coming from, and whether they are real, or invisible.

You might find (like me) that many of the expectations flying around in your head are actually unspoken. That is, nobody has ever said they expect this of you, but you have simply assumed the expectation instead.

With that said, I’d encourage you to do a simple exercise.

Take a notepad and pen and write down all the unspoken expectations (the shoulds or should nots) that you are following at the moment.

It can be quite an enlightening process.

Learn More:  Worrying About Work? Tips For Thoughtful Leaders.

The Source of Unspoken Expectations

So where do these unspoken expectations come from?

They can come from many places, and are often a source of feeling guilty at work.

Some might come from your childhood and upbringing, your past experiences of various workplaces and also society itself.

Why you don't speak up at work

Some of the unspoken expectations that I feel are at play in many organisations include:

  • Leaders or managers should work long hours, because they have more responsibility
  • Leaders should be able to handle high stress, because they get paid more than others
  • People should obey the hierarchy and shouldn’t question the direction of senior management; and
  • Managers need to work “hard” to achieve success.

Unfortunately, I think that many organisations thrive on these unspoken expectations.

They influence people to work longer and harder, and to stay silent when maybe they should be speaking up.

All without anyone having to say these rules out loud!

Feeling Guilty at Work? Follow This Process

I’ve found that one way to tackle feelings of guilt is to follow a simple process of reframing.

Reframing is helpful to see things from a different perspective. I find that coaching is a useful process that can help us reframe our situation, but we can also look to do this for ourselves, too.

Reframing Process - Feeling Guilty at Work

1. Start By Spotting the Guilt

A good place to start is by spotting the guilt when it appears.

Usually I feel guilt starting as a sort of tension. A feeling that I am compelled to be doing something, but I really don’t want to.

When we feel compelled to take action that we don’t want to take, I find that the emotion pushing us to keep going is often guilt.

You might find that guilt is accompanied by feelings of shame, that you aren’t living up to expectations. Or perhaps resentment, that you are being forced to do something you don’t want to do.

For example, I want to take a break, but I’ll keep working, because I feel guilty if I look like I’m not working hard.

That is, I feel compelled to keep working, and the potential guilt is what is driving me forward, even when I know I shouldn’t.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #83: Handling Emotions in Leadership.

2. Find the Expectation

Next, we need to uncover the expectation that is hiding beneath the surface. This is the potential cause of that guilty feeling.

Looking through a magnifying glassTo do this, we need to consider the unwritten, unspoken, invisible rules that we may be abiding by in our workplace.

Let’s go back to the example of taking a break at work.

We’ve spotted the guilt already – we feel guilty when we look like we’re not working hard.

In this example, the unspoken expectation in your head might be that managers are always busy. If managers are always busy, then taking a break is not acceptable.

But remember, this rule is usually invisible. Nobody says it, and you won’t find it in the company policy anywhere.

Therefore, it is not a real rule, and therefore, probably not a reasonable or even sensible expectation.

Learn More:  4 Phrases Overheard In An Unproductive Workplace.

3. Reframe the Situation

Next, we should attempt to reframe the situation, to view it from a different perspective.

The glass is fullReframing doesn’t change anything about the world. It simply changes the way we view it.

One example is failure.

Some people see failure as a personal defect – “I failed, therefore I am not a good person.”

Others see failure as an excellent opportunity to learn – “I failed, I wonder what I could do better next time?”

The situation is the same, but the perspective is different. One perspective leads to wallowing and feeling bad, the other leads to learning.

So back to our example of taking breaks.

The expectation was that managers should always be busy. Taking a break is not busy and might even be perceived as lazy or uncommitted.

To reframe this, we might instead say to ourselves:

“Taking a break will mean I’ll be even more productive and effective afterwards. I’ll be an even better manager.”

You see, instead of taking a break meaning you are lazy or uncommitted, it now means something positive.

4. Take Action

Now, we have hopefully discovered a positive reframing for the situation.

We have turned a potential negative into a positive.

And this may mean that instead of feeling guilty, we can feel content with our choice and take the appropriate action.

We’ll take a break, because taking a break makes us more effective as a leader.

But What If The Expectation Is Real?

I find that this simple process can be used in many situations to better understand feelings of guilt, and help us to get past them.

But you might ask – what if the expectation is not unspoken or invisible, but actually real?

For example, your boss might actually tell you that you shouldn’t take breaks because you seem uncommitted or lazy.

Or perhaps that you should be contactable at all hours because “that’s why we pay you the big bucks.”

Well, in this case, you’re dealing with a real expectation, instead of one just inside your own head.

So the choice is clear. If it’s a real expectation, is it acceptable? Or should you be spending your time somewhere else?

Use Reflection Time to Work Through Feelings of Guilt

Feeling guilty is not pleasant, and I find this simple process helpful for trying to work through it.

This is why I find periods of reflection valuable for leaders.

Reflection provides time and space for leaders to better understand their own thoughts and feelings, and hopefully lead better in the process.

If you find yourself feeling guilty based on some invisible expectation, why not challenge it and see what happens?

Do you find yourself feeling guilty at work? What do you do about it? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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