A new study sheds light on the critical role of moral competence in influencing workplace behaviour. This research, conducted by a team of Italian psychologists, explores the complex dynamics between moral disengagement and moral competence and their impacts on two types of workplace behaviours: counterproductive work behaviours (CWB) and organisational citizenship behaviours (OCB). The findings were published in the European Review of Applied Psychology.
Moral disengagement, a concept developed by Albert Bandura, refers to the cognitive process where individuals justify their unethical behaviors, thereby circumventing their moral standards. This process allows individuals to engage in negative actions without feeling guilt or shame. On the other hand, moral competence is the ability to make ethical decisions and act according to moral principles. It involves recognising moral dilemmas, evaluating them, and making choices that are consistent with one’s ethical beliefs.
The study reveals that higher levels of moral disengagement are positively associated with CWB, which includes behaviours harmful to an organisation, like theft, vandalism, or neglecting duties. Conversely, it negatively correlates with OCB – behaviours that positively contribute to the organisational environment, like helping colleagues or going beyond job requirements.
Alessandro Lo Presti, PhD, associate professor of work and organisational psychology at the Università degli studi della Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli” in Italy, provides further insight into the study’s motivation: “Moral competence is a variable often examined in social and developmental psychology studies and shows meaningful results. However, it’s not as prominently featured in organisational psychology, despite its potential to explain human behaviour within an organisational context. Our aim was to address this gap in the literature, and the results partially fulfilled our expectations.”
Critically, the study highlights that moral competence can moderate the impact of moral disengagement on CWB. Individuals with lower moral competence exhibit a stronger positive association between moral disengagement and CWB. This suggests that enhancing moral competence in employees can potentially mitigate some of the harmful effects of moral disengagement, leading to a reduction in negative workplace behaviours.
Lo Presti further explains the implications of these findings: “Unfortunately, moral disengagement is a process that can involve anybody, depending on the particular situation one is facing.
“By showing that moral competence can buffer the negative effect of moral disengagement on CWB, we highlighted that organisations can work on fostering the moral competence of their employees. This can start from the recruitment phase to subsequent training opportunities to reduce the likelihood that moral disengagement processes may lead to harmful behaviours for the organisation.”
Interestingly, the study did not find a significant moderating effect of moral competence on the relationship between moral disengagement and OCB. This suggests that the reduction of negative behaviours through increased moral competence does not necessarily translate into an increase in positive workplace behaviours.
Lo Presti also shares his future plans, which involve delving deeper into the realm of moral processes: “One of my favourite research topics regards contemporary career orientations such as protean and boundaryless careers.
“These have moral implications, so in the future, I’d like to study moral processes and competences in connection to these career orientations and how they impact subsequent organisational behaviours.”
These findings have significant implications for organisational management and HR practices. They suggest that interventions aimed at increasing moral competence can be an effective strategy for reducing unethical behaviours in the workplace. This can be achieved through targeted training programmes, ethical codes of conduct, and fostering a culture that values ethical decision-making.
Organisations can benefit from understanding these dynamics to create a more ethical and productive work environment. By focusing on developing employees’ moral competence, companies can not only reduce negative behaviours but also promote a culture of integrity and ethical responsibility.