Not long ago, I met a friend for dinner. My stir-fry came with a teeny-tiny side of rice, which lasted about five minutes before it was all gone. When the server asked how we were doing, I asked if I could have a little more rice.
“Sure, honey,” she whisked the empty dish away. “I’m supposed to charge you, though.”
“I won’t, though,” she leaned in close. “I won’t charge you. I’ll just give it to you.”
“No, really. It’s okay. You can charge me.” I tried not to sound irritated.
“I won’t, though.”
And then we got in a little I won’t yes it’s fine no I won’t, with my voice sounding increasingly desperate and her voice increasingly like my co-conspirator, which was silly, because, as my friend pointed out later, “You were going to pay for that rice, either way. She was just hoping it was on the tip.”
But it was Guilt rice, is the thing. So, free or not, it had a metallic and nasty tinge to it.
There are lots of things that come with a side of guilt. The one that stands out to me most, in my work, is tied to a leader’s daily quandary: Making sure the right things get done in the right amount of time—for the right reasons. Motivating people to do good work, though, isn't done by making someone feel guilty. In fact, delivering anything with a side of guilt—rice, news, requests, gifts—generally backfires, because people don’t like to feel guilty. It’s a successful tactic sometimes, particularly if a religion or culture relies on guilt from its followers, or if one grew up in a household tinged with guilt, but it never feels good.
Here are things I avoid saying when rallying people to come together.
Do it for me. This might work in marriage or friendship, but it doesn’t work in leadership.
Do it because someone else will suffer if you don’t. This works if it’s really true… but unless we’re talking about broad cultural implications or big world issues, it’s rare that real suffering will occur if someone doesn’t follow through—and everyone knows it.
Do it because you’re a lousy person if you don’t. No one likes the implication that they are not a decent human being. Putting caveats on any action in which one’s self-worth is at stake is a big mistake, because in the end, while the task might get completed, it’s done with resentment and distrust.
In the end, culpability and obligations really lie within each of us. We do things because we want to. We want to do well. We want to do right by the world. We want to feel proud or accomplished or legitimate. No amount of reproach or condemnation will change that. We can try—we can dig deep until others have deep and ugly pangs of guilt—but in the end, it just. Doesn’t. Feel. Good.
I have a friend who almost married a man whose guilt-inducing controlling tactics kept her tightly diminished and miserable. Every dollar she spent, everything she said, every choice she made about her time and energy—it was all questioned and discussed, ad nauseum, until she finally realized how guilty she was feeling—all the time. That’s when she finally considered a lifetime of feeling that way. She walked away, just in time.
I know a lot about guilt; I feel it deeply, and always have. Even as a child. My friends and family could get me to do anything by spreading a few specks of guilt around the room. And then there was my brother, who didn’t seem to have a single shred of that particular bone in his body. My mom remembers trying to get him to clean his room when he was about twelve. She was laying it on thick: She was tired, she couldn’t do it all herself, she was relying on him, things would get so much better for the whole entire world if he would clean his room. Will full-on distain, he said to her, “Don’t even try it, Mom. Guilt won’t work with me. Ever.” She says she realized she’d have to give him real reasons to do his part in the world, because taking the easy way out—motivating with guilt—wasn’t going to work. He could see right through it and had identified it for what it really was. He’d outsmarted her in a game she didn’t even know she was playing.
I try to catch myself saying things that might illicit guilt in others. I don’t want to be the person who asks anyone to do anything out of guilt. If I can explain why, and if we can come together in our mission for real reasons, good reasons, sustainable reasons—there will be no reason for anything to come with a side of guilt.
In the past few days—the first week of school, here, for us—I’ve been overcome by the teamwork of our staff. It’s been like watching a well-rehearsed orchestra, with all the instruments showing up right on cue and playing their hearts out. Every string in sync.
The extra steps everyone took? It wasn’t out of guilt. The times they showed up for a duty, unassigned; the extra smiles and helping hands offered; all of the people, supporting and assisting and just being available—all those things happened on their very own. They didn’t do it because I asked them to, or because I insisted. I didn’t even really have to mention it. They just did it because it was who they are and what they wanted to do.