Guilt is a one-way street that leads a person into the depth of extreme remorse for one’s action or inaction.

What can one do once an arrow or a bullet is shot? The target has met its fate.

Once guilt is realized, so is resentment and the shame that comes along with it. People who experience guilt tend to migrate every related emotion toward other situations in life.

Hurting someone with a deliberate act of cruelty
Lying or cheating
Making a poorly informed decision
Inaction after witnessing injustice
Anxiety and worry
Low self-esteem
Social withdrawal
Obsessive rumination

But why am I talking about the technicalities of guilt, the effects, and the outcome? It is because just like the social connections we make with people based on the primary and secondary status, guilt is another element of life that must be addressed.

In the leadership journey, one cannot base their decisions on the biases of their emotions. They must work to attain a ground of neutrality. However, can a lead use the ground of neutrality when it comes to experiencing guilt?

“Guilt is always hungry, don’t let it consume you.”

~Terri Guillemets

It is the practice of decision-making that will help ward away the evils of guilt. What’s done in the past is done, and what was not done is also left to its remains. You cannot do anything about the past but you also can’t do anything about the accompanying guilt. However, you could allow your realizations to ensure that you make positive changes in the present that impact the future for the better.

It is up to you to decide how you want to treat the situation. Do you think it is wise to be the primary person or the secondary?

Let’s say as a manager in a leading position in your company, a staff member comes to you with a problem. How do you think you should handle the situation? Ruminate on this while I give you a few examples to consider. So, take a moment before you read the two examples below.

Example 1: The manager is approached by the team member about a certain grievance. This team member has been handling every role by himself or herself as there is no one else assigned in that specific department. The employee is exhausted, has not been able to take a sick leave, and cannot lead a healthy personal life. This is their grievance but the manager seems to not care because the work is a priority and needs to be done. Some deadlines need to be met. So, the manager yells at the team member for taking the work lightly and not showing commitment. In a few weeks, the employee is admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with exhaustion and anemia. The boss feels guilty but doesn’t do anything about it. This is the reality of the job; he thinks to himself. My employee knew this before joining.

Example 2: In the second example, the manager takes steps to add more members to the team so that the employee who is now in the hospital can get better and come back. This way, there are other team members to handle the work that was abruptly stopped. The burden of the work is divided, creating room for a more humanized approach toward work. The manager feels a little guilty for having treated his employee badly at work.

I hope you had the time to reflect on what your actions could be, and also to read the two examples above.

Guilt is a one-way street but what we decide to do next turns it into a two-way street. 

“Maybe there’s more we all could have done, but we just have to let the guilt remind us to do better next time.”

~Veronica Roth

To address guilt, you can do the following:

  • Use your guilt as a motivation for change by taking responsibility for your actions, making amends, and avoiding repeating such actions.
  • Allow your guilt to make you feel more empathetic toward others.
  • Let your guilt act as a moral compass, reminding you of the values you can adopt and make ethical choices.

Many times, people can make you feel guilty for things that you should not feel guilty about. This is when you have to consider the primary and secondary status of a person.

For instance, the employee in example 1 may have felt guilty for not being able to complete the work on time. So, the employee worked day and night until he or she collapsed and was taken to the hospital. This kind of guilt is unhealthy and can lead one to making poor decisions. The employee should have realized his or her primary status and consider health before work as a priority. 

Therefore, to avoid letting guilt drive your actions or to prevent feeling guilty about decisions made in the present. Help yourself to learn and identify when to assign yourself as a primary or secondary person in the situation. The day you can do this, then the outcome should not compel you to feel guilty in times of unexpected results.

Here’s a short quote I read on X:

“If you are feeling guilty for leading a

normal life while people are being killed

and wiped out, know that not all guilt is

bad, your guilt is a sign of a working heart

and shared humanity.

Thank God you feel guilty

Thank God you feel rage

Thank God you feel sadness.”

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