Learning & Development, Talent

How to Accept Being Behind

What we’re about to say is going to sound a bit sacrilegious to some managers: You shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty for falling behind at work.

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As counterintuitive as that might sound, some experts argue that feeling guilt or shame about a seemingly never-ending to-do list doesn’t do workers any good.

In fact, it can be harmful because it contributes to stress and its associated physical and mental health impacts and leads to decreased office morale.

Avoid the Guilt of Unfinished To-Do Lists

“People experience guilt and its close cousin shame when they have done something wrong,” says Art Markman in an article for Harvard Business Review. “Guilt is focused internally on the behavior someone has committed, while shame tends to involve feeling like you are a bad person, particularly in the context of bad behaviors that have become public knowledge.”

Markman notes that these feelings of guilt and shame can actually be motivating in some cases—for example, by increasing people’s propensity to cooperate. “And, in some cases, guilt can also motivate people to make progress on projects that have stalled,” he writes. “At a minimum, guilt does not seem to make people worse at completing tasks.”

But there is a limit to the benefits of that guilt. When the guilt follows an employee home from the office or on vacation, it’s often a sign that things have gone too far.

Prolonged feelings of guilt and shame toward unfinished work can make employees start to resent their job, for example. And it can diminish the therapeutic and reenergizing benefits of time spent away from work.

When to Let It Go

So, if guilt is good sometimes but bad other times, where do we draw the line? The key factor is control. “You want to use guilt as a motivational tool when you are in a position to get work done,” explains Markman. “When you’re not, develop strategies to leave it behind. And find ways to reduce feelings of shame. Recognize that failing to get some work completed does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person.”

The lesson for managers and their employees is to establish reasonable expectations and boundaries. If an employee’s workload is unmanageable in the first place, that’s a problem to be addressed.

If the employee is beginning to stress out and experience guilt and shame as a result of that workload, it’s the manager’s job to help explain appropriate boundaries and the importance of personal time away from the office not spent dwelling on work.