From “move fast and break things” to “hacker culture,” Silicon’s Valley’s mantras over the past two decades have seemingly encouraged employees to cast aside moral concerns in pursuit of innovation. Perhaps due to this mindset, its companies have faced increasing backlash for ethically questionable or outrightly immoral decisions. It seems that managers, and not just those in technology, are faced with an undesirable trade-off: Focus on doing the right thing or focus on innovation.
Does one really need to be an “evil genius” to innovate? Instead of being an impediment, what if moral concerns could fuel innovation? Anecdotal evidence suggests so. Consider the late 1950s when Nils Bohlin, an engineer at Volvo, sought to revolutionize the widely used lap belt design in automobiles. Motivated to provide a better method to protect passengers from the impact of deceleration, Bohlin developed the groundbreaking “three-point seatbelt.” Remarkably, Volvo subsequently opened the patent to allow any car manufacturer to adopt this lifesaving invention. Credited with preserving hundreds of thousands of lives, Bohlin’s basic design remains in use to this day.
The number of innovations developed via moral missions has since exploded. From smog vacuum cleaners that can transform particles into diamonds to 3D mesh that can convert fog into drinking water, some early innovations seem to have emerged because of—not despite—moral concerns. A glance at Time’s “Innovations of 2022” list suggests that even more developed products, such as a smart slate for braille learners or accessible fitness technology, embody a moral mission.
As a professor of organizational behavior, I found this puzzle fascinating. I wanted to know: Is morality a benefit or a burden when it comes to innovation?
As a first step, I partnered with two distinct organizations that prioritize innovation so that I could survey their employees. Initial results suggested that there are two types of employees, which I’ll call “moral hesitators” and “moral trailblazers.” On one hand, moral hesitators found the moral content of their work to be burdensome and draining. They feared that their innovations would have morally precarious effects. As a result, they were too anxious and detached to innovate effectively.
On the other hand, moral trailblazers had a different outlook. Instead of seeing the moral content of their work as a burden, they viewed it as an opportunity. These employees embraced the chance to have a positive moral impact and took steps to think “outside the box” to develop morally sound ideas. They saw their moral concerns as a chance to do something new and generate important change.
What, then, determines whether an employee acts as a trailblazer or a hesitator? The key appears to be value alignment: Does an employee feel as though the organization shares their personal moral values?
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My data revealed that when employees believed they were working for an organization that shared their values, they were more likely to become moral trailblazers. The sense that they were working for a morally responsible organization freed them to think in flexible and innovative ways. In these cases, employees felt comfortable innovating, knowing it would benefit, and contribute to, a responsible cause.
However, when employees felt as though their organization didn’t share their values, they became moral hesitators. In these cases, employees developed anxiety and severe concerns about contributing to a questionable mission, and this hindered their creativity. Employees also reported feeling exhausted from carrying moral concerns that appeared so far removed from those of the rest of the organization.
What does this mean for managers? This research suggests that managers concerned with innovation should seek to ensure that employees feel a sense of alignment with the company’s moral mission. Organizations must thoughtfully consider the values they uphold to ensure alignment with the principles held by their employees. Bohlin’s work with the “three-point seatbelt” exemplifies this alignment: Volvo famously avowed and shared a resolute commitment to safety.
My research also suggests that companies striving to innovate should embrace, rather than shun, employees’ moral concerns. While it may be tempting to believe that setting aside morality will pave the easiest path to innovation, this may be misguided. Instead of sidelining morality, we should embrace the potential for employees’ convictions to bolster the enterprise’s creativity and innovation.
Perhaps most important, managers should resist the temptation to consistently encourage employees to ignore their moral convictions. If stripping moral concerns from employees is part of the organizational formula for innovation, companies might best look inward first.
As technology continues to advance—including the rise of AI—questions of morality and ethics are at the forefront of these conversations. Instead of posing an impediment, these moral concerns could become a key driver of a more innovative, ethically sensible future. Then we might not need “to move fast and break things” after all.
Paper citation: https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/amj.2021.0273
Tim Kundro is an Assistant Professor at the UNC Chapel Hill Kenan Flagler Business School