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Bad behavior at work linked to low levels of self-regulation

Our “moral compass” is meant to guide us away from bad behavior in the workplace, and towards good behavior and integrity. However, for some people this system fails. Such individuals engage in counterproductive behavior at work, including fraud, lying, rule-breaking, siphoning off resources, falsely calling in sick and bullying others. They cost organizations huge sums of money each year.

According to a recent study led by scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK, and the International Telematic University (UNINETTUNO) in Italy, as many as 41 percent of employees have witnessed some form of unethical conduct in their workplace. Although one of the main challenges facing organizations is to prevent bad behavior in the first place, it is even more important to understand how some people are able to sidestep their moral standards and make counterproductive behavior routine and normal. Such people can be at the root of serious and criminal misbehavior perpetrated for years against an organization.

Current psychological theory proposes that wrongdoers become morally disengaged, a process that involves convincing themselves that ethical standards do not apply to them in a particular context. Moral disengagement is a social-cognitive process that enables people to deviate from their moral standards in order to justify, normalize and perpetuate bad behavior. It involves temporarily reframing the misbehavior to make it acceptable and to enable people to engage in the activities without feeling any pangs of conscience or guilt. 

The researchers wanted to investigate the extent to which personal moral resources, that they term self-efficacy, may prevent people in the workplace from becoming morally disengaged. Self-efficacy is a set of beliefs which individuals have about their own capabilities to self-reflect and self-regulate moral behavior. Self-reflection involves the person’s ability to rethink past moral failures and work towards improving their behavior in the future. Self-regulation involves the ability of a person to make morally acceptable choices when in situations of temptation or pressure. 

Firstly, they designed and tested a psychological test for measuring levels of self-efficacy. They tested this tool with 359 employees in the UK, asking them to respond to questions about how they would behave in different circumstances of moral dilemma and how they would react if they realized they had engaged in some bad behavior. Using this method, the researchers developed a moral self-efficacy scale that was valid for testing this variable.

In the next part of the study, the researchers used their newly-developed scale to test their hypothesis that individuals’ previous engagement in misconduct is not necessarily translated into a long-term moral disengagement or the normalization of bad behavior. They enrolled 1,308 Italian employees in the study; each one completed a survey three times over a three-month period. The employees were asked to rate how often they had engaged in different behaviors, their level of agreement with a set of statements about different moral disengagement mechanisms and their perceived capabilities to master moral challenges and reflect on their own moral failures. 

The findings, published recently in the journal Group & Organization Management, show that heightened levels of both categories of self-efficacious behavior (self-reflection and self-regulation) decrease the possibility of misbehavior and wrongdoing becoming routine at work. This indicates that, while all individuals can disengage morally, not everyone subsequently continues down the ‘slippery slope’ to routine and normalized misbehavior. Some individuals are more able to stop, become aware, correct and regain moral control.

“Although self-efficacious individuals are in general more self-regulated and motivated to behave in line with their standards, this does not mean they are morally infallible,” said Dr. Roberta Fida, of UEA’s Norwich Business School.

“However, we show that highly morally efficacious individuals are more likely to ‘bounce back’ after a failure, and learn from their mistakes, rather than routinize misbehavior and repeatedly deviate from their moral compass. Rather, they have the resources to restore their moral compass, to mindfully re-engage morally and are therefore less likely to continue justifying and engaging in wrongdoing.”

“For individuals with low moral self-efficacy, moral disengagement normalizes wrongdoings, so they can be routinely performed with little anguish. They are less aware of the internal and social forces that work in interrelated ways to disengage their moral standards and bypass their moral control system, making it difficult to mitigate or stop the process to prevent the thoughtless routinization of their misconduct.”  

“The results of this research broaden our understanding of how to prevent the routinization of wrongdoing at work by helping people develop and strengthen their moral self-efficacy,” said Dr. Marinella Paciello.

“Organizations should create opportunities to reflect on the complexities of moral decision making, the mechanisms often at play in the justification of wrongdoing and the capabilities needed to master moral challenges,” she concluded.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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