The natural conditions of the business world are breeding grounds for what psychologists call moral disengagement. The psychology of moral disengagement allows us to do bad stuff and still feel okay about ourselves. We morally disengage when we behave as a collective rather than as individuals, view others as numbers more than people, and distance ourselves from the impact of our decisions. In other words, if we work in an organization and do not have personal contact with customers, we are likely to morally disengage. This is dangerous, because a tight link between moral disengagement and unethical behavior has been found time and again by psychologists. How can we break this link?
In a recently published paper, my colleagues (Mary Kern, Sujin Lee, and Zhu Zhu) and I set out to find an “ethical intervention” that breaks this link between moral disengagement and unethical behavior. We found it in a classic theory from psychology called attachment theory. Attachment theory examines what each of us expects from the people to whom we are attached … do I expect for my relational needs to be addressed (“secure attachment”) or do I worry about whether my relational needs will be met (“anxious attachment”)? In our studies, we simply asked people (both undergraduates and working adults) to remember a past instance in which they experienced relational support and acceptance, or a past instance in which they didn’t. In other words, we randomly assigned each participant to either be primed with secure attachment or primed with anxious attachment. Across three studies, we found that individuals primed with attachment anxiety experienced the usual effects of moral disengagement. However, individuals primed with attachment security were able to withstand moral disengagement, and still behave ethically. The link was broken!
This ethical intervention is a powerful tool for managers. How can a manager amp up the secure attachment of the work environment, especially during uncertain economic times? The goal is to encourage employees to recall and feel instances of relational support, whether it be from family, friends, customers, vendors, or colleagues – even pets!. Managers can encourage employees to integrate their relationships with friends and family into the workplace. They can foster interdependence in a team, and reward individuals who come through for their teammates, and they can encourage employees to share stories of positive interpersonal interactions with others. Managers themselves can be a source of secure attachment, keeping promises and avoiding making promises that will not be kept. Those who discourage family photos and pet stories, who fail to reward team players, who allow the loudest voices to be the anxiously attached, and who break their own promises risk ethical peril. These managers allow a work environment steeped in anxious attachment and moral disengagement, and thus, inadvertently encourage unethical behavior. Secure attachment is an ethical intervention any manager can implement immediately.