Are you a jerk at work? The key to good behavior in the office is self-reflection, ‘moral efficacy’

NORWICH, United Kingdom — Unethical behavior at work is a slippery slope that can lead to major problems for both employee and employer. Now, new research from East Anglia University reports that the ability to genuinely self-reflect and self-regulate is key to cutting back on misbehavior while on the job.

Everyone has their own personal moral compass, but it’s not uncommon to deviate from one’s chosen ethical path every now and then. Sometimes we know a particular action or remark is wrong, but we do it anyway, justifying the behavior to ourselves for whatever reason. This common psychological phenomenon, in which people rationalize their own misbehavior, rule-breaking, or wrongdoing to avoid guilt or feeling the need to make amends/apologize, is referred to as moral disengagement.

In many cases, moral disengagement is a gradual, worsening process. For example, over time, an individual slowly but surely allows themselves to act in a more and more immoral manner until one day, such misbehavior is a part of their very routine. For this project, study authors investigated how to reduce the power of moral disengagement.

To that end, the role of moral self-efficacy, or how much a person believes they are capable of honest self-reflection, and subsequent self-regulation of their moral behavior, was focused on. More specifically, self-reflection was defined as one’s ability to think back and reflect on their past moral failures and anticipate how to do better in the future. Meanwhile, self-regulation refers to one’s beliefs in their ability to control themselves and do the right thing when tempted by opportunity or a high-pressure situation.

Both of those self-efficacy dimensions help considerably to lower the possibility of misbehavior and wrongdoing becoming routine at work, researchers conclude.

“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,” says Dr. Roberta Fida, of UEA’s Norwich Business School, in a statement. “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,” Dr. Fida continues.

Fida and his team used data from 1,308 Italian employees who took part in the study. Each subject was surveyed three times over the course of a three month period. Participants were asked to rate how often they had engaged in various behaviors, as well as how much they agreed with various statements about different moral disengagement mechanisms. Finally, subjects were also asked about their perceived capabilities to overcome moral challenges and engage in meaningful self-reflection on their own moral failures.

“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,” says Dr Marinella Paciello, of The UniNettuno University in Rome. “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.”

The study is published in Group & Organization Management.

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