To err is truly human and mistakes are truly inevitable. Paul Nutt, an Ohio State University business school researcher, provides data showing that half of all decisions made in business organizations fail. In his book, Why Decisions Fail, he shows that decisions mostly fail because the deciders ignore feedback. The lesson is clear, decision making in business is a random walk—no one is any better at decision making than anyone else. The major difference between good and bad decision making concerns the degree to which people are open to feedback regarding the consequences of their decisions.

In the moral development literature, there is a very interesting line of research on guilt. In the typical study, a hypothetical person makes a mistake, and the research participant is asked how he or she would respond if he or she had made that mistake. This is, of course, directly relevant to the topic of reactions to bad business decisions. The data show that people’s “guilt responses” fall into four relatively clear categories with specific behavioral consequences.

The first category of responses is called “intropunitive”. Intropunitive people quickly, even reflexively, blame themselves. Such people are prone to more or less persistent feelings of guilt, seem somewhat neurotic, and were probably the kinds of clients studied originally by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. They were the source of Freud’s ideas about the superego and the problem of guilt.

The second category of responses is called “extrapunitive”. Extrapunitive people, when faced with the news that they have made an error, quickly, even reflexively, blame other people and external circumstances. They seem incapable of internalizing blame and seem somewhat hostile and suspicious of other people.

The third category of responses is called “impunitive”. When it appears than impunitive people have made a mistake, they simply refuse to acknowledge that anything significant has happened. They deny the reality of the situation and typically wonder why anyone would bring up the subject. These people seem somewhat psychopathic, and the defining feature of psychopathy is no capacity for guilt.

The fourth category of responses is relatively small in terms of frequency of occurrence. These responses are called “mature self-critical guilt”. Here the people own their mistakes and vow to learn from the experience.

We are discussing an assessment literature here—the assessment of individual differences in how people respond to the news that they have made mistakes. Meaningful assessment should predict behavior, so it is important to ask what these four categories of guilt responses predict. In the moral development literature, the major outcome of interest is moral conduct—usually the delinquency/non-delinquency criterion. Intropunitive responses are primarily associated with feelings of guilt. Extrapunitive responses are primarily associated with hostility. Impunitive responses are primarily associated with denial. Of the four categories, only mature self-critical guilt predicts compliance and integrity; delinquents lack the capacity for mature self-criticism.