Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 10;   March 4, 2020:

Workplace Remorse


Remorse is an unpleasant emotion. But it need not be something we suppress or avoid. It can provide a path to a positive learning experience that adds meaning to life.
A remorseful dog

It isn't only humans who can experience remorse. And some other species can even show it. Photo by Bruno Cervera

Have you ever said something you wish you hadn't? Or said something out loud that you wish you hadn't even thought? Or "lost it" in a meeting when you just couldn't keep it together long enough for some jerk to make a fool of himself without your assistance? If you recognize these situations, or similar ones, then you know the feeling of remorse.

Remorse is different from regret. We can feel regret about any incident or condition that's troublesome or unwelcome, for ourselves or others. And we can feel regret even if we played no role in bringing that trouble about. By contrast, we feel remorse about situations for which we feel to some degree responsible. [McConnel 2018]

Remorse is a "negative" emotion in the sense that we'd rather not feel it, thank you very much. But remorse is a part of life. Feeling remorse is one indicator that we're still alive inside. And remorse can provide guidance for learning. In manageable doses, remorse is something to be thankful for.

When remorse takes over our inner life, when we feel remorseful almost continuously, when we replay endlessly one painful incident after another — that's when we know we're in trouble. That pattern can be an indicator of clinical depression. I can't offer much insight about that pattern in this short post, other than this: if you feel that you're in the grip of that pattern, it might be time to find a counselor or therapist to talk to about next steps.

So let's set that situation aside for now, and explore a more common kind of remorse that I'll call incident-specific workplace remorse.

Incident-specific workplace remorse is a feeling of remorse associated with an incident that occurred at work. Like most remorse, feeling it can be painful. But incident-specific workplace remorse doesn't follow you home every night. It doesn't stick with you all weekend. You feel it from time to time, possibly intensely at times, but it isn't a 24/7 life partner for weeks or months on end.

Because there isn't much anybody can do to change past events, dealing with workplace remorse related to a past event entails changing either how we view the event or events, or how we feel about them, or both. Fortunately there are steps to take. Below are three suggestions. In what follows I'll refer to the person feeling remorseful as Rhett (for Remorseful) and Rhett's conversation partner as Paula (for Partner).

Re-interpret the incident
Remorse about the incident can sometimes depend on a particular interpretation of what happened. For example, if Paula seemed to suddenly bring the conversation to an end, one interpretation that can lead Rhett to a sense of remorse is the idea that he said something foolish or insulting. But it's also possible that Paula was so engrossed in the conversation that she forgot about what time it was, and suddenly remembered a previous commitment.
Finding Because we can't change past
events, dealing with workplace
remorse entails changing how
we view the event, or changing
how we feel about it, or both
plausible re-interpretations of the incident can sometimes bring an end to the feelings of remorse by creating overwhelming doubt about the interpretation that led to remorse. The more plausible re-interpretations you can find, the more likely to vanish is the feeling of remorse.
Reframe the feeling
Changing the experience of the feeling of remorse is an alternative too. For example, Rhett can regard the feeling as a reminder that he has something to learn about Life. Or perhaps he can contemplate the seriousness of the situation, to determine whether the intensity of his response is proportionate, relative to other errors he might have made in his life.
By attending to the scale of the loss or damage, or by focusing on what is to be gained from the incident, Rhett can change what the incident means to him. He can convert a painful memory into a less-than-painful opportunity to learn.
Learn from the incident
Every remorse-inducing incident is an opportunity to practice learning from remorse. One technique for learning involves noticing what led to the incident. Collecting these observations from multiple incidents can reveal patterns. When Rhett later senses one of these patterns forming, he can take steps to prevent himself from repeating the actions that could lead to feeling remorse.
These observations need not be restricted to his own actions. Rhett can watch others to see how they handle similar situations. Whether or not they're successful, he can harvest lessons.

Although incident-specific workplace remorse does feel bad, often we can choose to look upon it as we would a warning of a less serious kind — a fine for parking a vehicle illegally, or a minor burn from touching something hot. Keep the incident in perspective, take the warning seriously, and learn from it whatever you can. Go to top Top  Next issue: Contribution Misattribution  Next Issue

Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunLove the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!


[McConnel 2018]
Terrance McConnel. "Moral Dilemmas", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Address fileSnapshots of Squirming Subjects
Today we use data as a management tool. We store, recall, and process data about our operations to help us manage resources and processes. But this kind of management data is often scattered, out of date, or just plain incorrect, and taking a snapshot doesn't work. There is a better way.
A MetronomeSelling Uphill: The Pitch
Whether you're a CEO or a project champion, you occasionally have to persuade decision makers who have some kind of power over you. What do they look for? What are the key elements of an effective pitch? What does it take to Persuade Power?
The rabbit that went down the rabbit-holeOur Last Meeting Together
You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
Soldiers of IX Engineering Command, U.S. Army Air Force, putting down a Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) Runway at an Advanced Landing Ground under construction somewhere in France following the Normandy Landings of World War IIManagement Debt: I
Management debt, like technical debt, arises when we choose paths — usually the lowest-cost paths — that lead to recurring costs that are typically higher than alternatives. Why do we take on management debt? How can we pay it down?
The business end of a spark plugWacky Words of Wisdom: III
Adages are so elegantly stated that we have difficulty doubting them. Here's Part III of a collection of often-misapplied adages.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.