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Friday, October 22, 2021

A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Antecedents, Theoretical Correlates, and Consequences of Moral Disengagement at Work

Ogunfowora, B. T., et al. (2021)
The Journal of Applied Psychology
Advance online publication. 


Moral disengagement refers to a set of cognitive tactics people employ to sidestep moral self-regulatory processes that normally prevent wrongdoing. In this study, we present a comprehensive meta-analytic review of the nomological network of moral disengagement at work. First, we test its dispositional and contextual antecedents, theoretical correlates, and consequences, including ethics (workplace misconduct and organizational citizenship behaviors [OCBs]) and non-ethics outcomes (turnover intentions and task performance). Second, we examine Bandura's postulation that moral disengagement fosters misconduct by diminishing moral cognitions (moral awareness and moral judgment) and anticipatory moral self-condemning emotions (guilt). We also test a contrarian view that moral disengagement is limited in its capacity to effectively curtail moral emotions after wrongdoing. The results show that Honesty-Humility, guilt proneness, moral identity, trait empathy, conscientiousness, idealism, and relativism are key individual antecedents. Further, abusive supervision and perceived organizational politics are strong contextual enablers of moral disengagement, while ethical leadership and organizational justice are relatively weak deterrents. We also found that narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and psychological entitlement are key theoretical correlates, although moral disengagement shows incremental validity over these "dark" traits. Next, moral disengagement was positively associated with workplace misconduct and turnover intentions, and negatively related to OCBs and task performance. Its positive impact on misconduct was mediated by lower moral awareness, moral judgment, and anticipated guilt. Interestingly, however, moral disengagement was positively related to guilt and shame post-misconduct. In sum, we find strong cumulative evidence for the pertinence of moral disengagement in the workplace.

From the Discussion

Our moderator analyses reveal several noteworthy findings. First, the relationship between moral disengagement and misconduct did not significantly differ depending on whether it is operationalized as a trait or state. This suggests that the impact of moral disengagement – at least with respect to workplace misconduct – is equally devastating when it is triggered in specific situations or when it is captured as a stable propensity. This provides initial support for conceptualizing moral disengagement along a continuum – from “one off” instances in specific contexts (i.e., state moral disengagement) to a “dynamic disposition” (Bandura, 1999b) that is relatively stable, but which may also shift in response to different situations (Moore et al., 2019).  

Second, there may be utility in exploring specific disengagement tactics. For instance, euphemistic labeling exerted stronger effects on misconduct compared to moral justification and diffusion of responsibility. Relative weight analyses further showed that some tactics contribute more to understanding misconduct and OCBs. Scholars have proposed that exploring moral disengagement tactics that match the specific context may offer new insights (Kish-Gephart et al., 2014; Moore et al., 2019). It is possible that moral justification might be critical in situations where participants must conjure up rationales to justify their misdeeds (Duffy et al., 2005), while diffusion of responsibility might matter more in team settings where morally disengaging employees can easily assign blame to the collective (Alnuaimi et al., 2010). These possibilities suggest that specific disengagement tactics may offer novel theoretical insights that may be overlooked when scholars focus on overall moral disengagement. However, we acknowledge that this conclusion is preliminary given the small number of studies available for these analyses.