Why guilt is good for you and your business

By Rebecca Plant

Ed and I made an important decision over the Christmas break and it’s stirred up some challenging emotions for us both.

The decision centred around our goals for the business for this year and the best way to make those happen.

The outcome left me feeling simultaneously weird and… free.

For the first time in six years, our roles will shift.  Ed will care for our youngest son for one day each week thereby freeing me up to spend that day in the business employing the skills that are needed to take our business forward this year.

For the past five years I’ve officially dedicated two days per week to business-related work, with the boys both in care on those days.

Last year we realised that I needed to be doing more but couldn’t work out how to make it happen. Or, I’ll be honest here — I didn’t stand up enough for why it was important and insist on it happening.

At the start of this year we took some time to go through the process of what we like to call, getting on the Same Page.

As we looked at what 2018 held for us — rolling out the rebranded Institute for Couples in Business, launching the Boardrooms and Bedrooms podcast and building up valuable resources to support our community of couples — we realised that my skill set was needed more this year.  

As a former journalist with strong skills in marketing and communication, I’m needed to promote and deliver our message far and wide and to be the ‘talent’ and strategist on creating top-notch content to help couples in business grow and thrive.

Ed’s genius is delivering our core programs and supporting our clients to achieve their goals. By removing him from the business for one day each week also forces him to let go of the tasks that he shouldn’t be doing and allow others to step in and take those on. In turn this allows me to step into my ‘Genius’ to achieve more of what’s needed in the business.

I recently went live on Facebook in the Couples in Business group to share this decision and the dichotomy of feelings that it evoked.The response from those who viewed the video reminded me of how relevant and important this conversation is for so many couples in business.

(To view the video, go to the group (please do apply if you’re not already member!): https://www.facebook.com/groups/businesscouples/videos/)

Attempting to get this balance right can be a tricky chat to navigate as it usually involves one partner letting go a bit while the other is required to step up, leaving both feeling a bit weird and outside of their comfort zone. It can also force us to challenge social expectations around parenting/work roles.

One client, in the comments under the video, admitted that Mother Guilt was the main thing stopping her from shifting the balance of work loads in their household for the better of the business.

Some time ago, I was interviewed about how, as a ‘working mum’, I handle guilt. 

It was a story that made the front cover of the Gold Coast Eye magazine, making me feel a little excited to be a covergirl and my son impressed that he graced the pages in a double-page spread of the newspaper (not that he really knew what that meant).

Anyway, apart from being a story that generated much hype in our household, it was also a story that generated loads of conversation on and off-line.

Believe it or not, the fact is that guilt has a place and you can use it to your advantage in your business.

But, before we go on, let’s get one thing straight:  I never call myself a ‘working mum’.  I refer to my role as a full-time mum and a full-time business woman.  The reason behind this?  Really, when you’re the head of an operation that brings in your livelihood and employs other people (in charge of a company, or the strategic director of your business) and a mother, neither role ever leaves your mind.

Even when I’m hosting a 75-person breakfast event, writing marketing content for our various projects, or working with our clients in our intensive workshops and the 6 Week Transformer program, a little part of my mind is regularly checking in with my children.  I wonder, ‘How are they doing?’, ‘Are they happy today?’, ‘I hope that Charles went down alright for his lunchtime sleep’.

And when I’m with my children, I’m also monitoring the conversations in my mind about the business such as: ‘I must follow-up on the speaker for the November event’; ‘Did that blog post get sent today?’; ‘I wonder how Ed’s workshop is going?’ And then sometimes, there’s the niggling: ‘Seriously, would you two just go to bed so I can get an hour’s work done!’

Neither role ever leaves you. But you have choice: It’s what you do with those questions in your mind that either stops you or supports you. Guilt has a necessary place in your everyday decisions, AND the outcomes you achieve in your business.

I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values.”

– Brene Brown, PhD

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past 13 years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.  She is the author of three #1 New York Times Bestsellers and her 2010 TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world, with over 25 million viewers.  So, I reckon she has got a handle on this guilt/emotion stuff.

Her view is simple: Guilt is an internal compass. If you feel guilty about something, then it’s important to you.

Feel guilty about leaving your kids in daycare while you go off to work?  Awesome, their development is important to you.

mother guilt

Feel guilty that you missed your 1-year-old’s first step because you were on the phone, making a deal or watering down a conflict within your team? Great, you have identified where your value as a parent lies.

Feel guilty that you just yelled at an employee, when it really could have been handled with a re-frame of your question?  Cool, now you can see that how people are treated in your employ is a yard stick.

Insert the thing you feel guilty about.  Excellent, now you know that thing can be high on your priority list.

I could go on with the things you feel guilty about, right?  Because that’s what we do when we feel guilty, isn’t it, we continue down that thought train and beat ourselves up. So let’s not do that.

Guilt is not actually a feeling, it’s a thought.  But, it triggers a series of emotions (as thoughts do) and most often, they are sadness, fear, or anger-related.  The key to overcoming guilt is choice: Do I choose to feel guilty, or do I choose to look past it and see the benefits of the thing I am doing when I have felt guilty.  For example, in the newspaper article on mother guilt I’m quoted to say:

“Rebecca says she still feels guilty for leaving the boys so she can do things for herself, but looks instead at how her resulting happiness actually benefits those around her, rather than focusing on a perceived negative.”

“I am learning that the high of doing something for me is better than the low of feeling guilty.  When the Business League is on and Ed and I go host that, my mum comes over and looks after our children, so there’s a moment during that morning where I’m wondering “are the kids OK?” …. It’s then I stop and realise how energised I feel doing what I’m doing and then go home and be a better mother for my children.”

Guilt can be positive.  It is a thought that allows you to stop and check in with yourself about how you actually want to respond to a situation.  It allows you to assess, “Is what I’m doing right now important to me, or not?”  If so, let yourself revel in it and top up your passion tank.  If it’s not, then it’s time to reassess your priorities.

The presence of guilt is a mind game.

You can choose to engage, or disengage.

But it’s not just mums who experience guilt. Men feel it too.  It’s just that most of the time they are unable to communicate it in words.  It comes out in the form of an irrational burst of shouting (or snide snap) at you, or the kids.  Or, it could come as a desire to crack open a beer as soon as they walk in the door.  Or, it can show up as an extended disappearance to the ‘man cave’.

Recently I was rendered sleepless after an encounter in a work meeting.  We had brought in a contractor to fulfill a role.  After 6 weeks in that role, I didn’t see this person was delivering on their contracted position.  So, prior to a group meeting with all involved in this project, I tossed over how I should approach it.  The answer was, with honesty and integrity … And by calling that contractor on their agreed deliverables.  So, that’s what I did.

This contractor did not herald my approach.  Indeed, their reaction to my gentle ‘calling’ was to get his back-up, to respond in a defensive nature.  I held my ground and after the meeting, reiterated our action points from the meeting and restated the contracted agreed role.

That night, I was sad.  I was ‘funking’ and beating myself up that I had made this person feel bad.  The thoughts were of guilt, “Couldn’t I have just let them go?  Why did I have to be so ‘rules’ in my approach?  Were they indeed doing a good job?”  I meditated on my feelings, I tossed and turned and then finally, I went to sleep.   I awoke the next morning still reeling that I had hurt this contractor’s feelings.  BUT, I was also strong in my approach, having felt that I operated with integrity, so any backlash was not something I could control.  At the end of the day, I can not control someone else’s chosen feeling.

I could go on with that story, but the end is irrelevant to the lesson.  Through the feelings and thoughts of guilt, I was able to recognise this:  It is important to me how people within my teams feel.  No-brainer.  I know what it is like to feel under-appreciated in a team, so it makes me even more mindful of the feelings of others.

But, mostly this lesson taught me to be honest and stand for what I see as being quality output in a person’s role.  I felt guilty for calling them on their level of operation – because high performance is important to me.  I am as strong with others as I am with myself.

Guilt definitely has a place in your business.  It allows you to create your own set of values.  It allows you to practice mindfulness and choice.  It allows you to perform and lead better.  Most of all, it makes you human.

Get Ed’s take on our new arrangement, and find out why he’s struggled with the change… Man, why’s it so hard to let go?

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About the Author

Rebecca is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Institute for Couples in Business. Bec is also trusty wife to husband and business partner Ed, and mum to Samuel, 4, and Charles, 2. For the past seven years Bec has been working with business owners, and her Super Powers include making complex problems simple, creating strong connections, and motivating teams by building kick-arse culture. Bec is also author of #1 best-seller Lead-The-Ship and hosts popular podcast Boardrooms & Bedrooms.