Moral disengagement and workplace competitions


Are competitions between colleagues a good idea? And if so, how should you design them?

Competition at work can be fun. Take a ‘step-challenge’ for example, which my office is currently running. We’ve split into teams to see who can take the most steps in a week. At the end of it, the winners will be getting a free pub lunch. The overarching goal is to ensure we all make positive changes in our work routines – encouraging us to overcome the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.

Competitions can also be about productivity – used to motivate staff in their roles – such as when a company rewards its top salesperson.

The criticism of workplace competitions are that you can risk team cohesion and encourage unethical behaviour. Recent research sheds new light on these issues.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic

As HRM has written about in the past, extrinsic motives are behaviours that are rewarded externally (via money, prizes, etc.) and intrinsic motives are behaviours that are rewarding in and of themselves. Thinking back to our step challenge, whether you’re focused on the pub lunch or the health benefits of walking would be the difference between whether or not you are extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.

HR expert Tim Baker, who wrote the above article, pointed out how offering a bonus to staff can backfire. “When incentives are used to improve performance, they can unintentionally take the employee’s attention off the work the reward is designed to enhance. The promise of a bonus, shifts the employee’s focus from the task to the prize.”

The obvious negative effect of this is on engagement. Take the bonus away, and will the employee still want to do the job? But perhaps another thing to be aware of is disengagement of an ethical variety.

Research published in the International Journal of Innovation Management looked at whether there was a correlation between monetary benefits and moral disengagement. And whether there was a negative correlation between hedonic motivations (non-monetary benefits, such as the task being fun to do) and moral disengagement.

Choosing to do right

Moral disengagement is a really useful term, and not just in reference to competitions. Very often we think of our moral sense as something that’s permanent, and operating each time we make a decision. But that’s not the case. It can be turned on and off.

The researchers in the above study define moral disengagement as the phenomenon in which people are able to “disengage from the self-regulatory process that normally impedes individuals from acting in a way inconsistent with their own moral standards.”

Think of it in the context of a sports game. If you hate the other team enough, you may make the decision to suspend your normal code against playing rough.

The researchers point out several mechanisms of moral disengagement:

  • Moral justification: making harmful decisions and justifying them by saying they are socially or personally worthwhile. In the sports game, this would be the thought that “playing rough is the only way we will win”.
  • Euphemistic labelling: a thought pattern develops wherein unacceptable behaviour is portrayed as ‘benign’ or you remove personal responsibility from that behaviour. “We were just passionate out there.”
  • Advantageous comparison: justifying unethical behaviour by comparing it to worse behaviour, so mentally telling yourself “well, that wasn’t as bad as they were playing”
  • Displacement and diffusion of responsibility: this is where you place the moral blame on others or the situation itself. “They were asking for it” or “It’s not just us, everyone does it”.
  • Disregarding and distorting consequences: conducting unethical behaviour is justified by lowering expectations of consequences or ignoring them completely (possibly through misapprehension). “Nobody got hurt in the long run.”
  • Attribution of blame and dehumanising: consequences of behaviour on victims are minimised or ignored when you (the morally disengaged) no longer value the victim’s feelings, hopes and concerns and instead see them as “sub-human objects”. “That pack of animals deserve whatever we dish out.”

Money over morality

To test their hypotheses, the researchers sent out a quantitative survey regarding acceptable behaviour in an idea competition to students enrolled in a master’s degree program at a German university. The specific course that the students were enrolled in was based on fundamentals of innovation and technology management. They chose these students in this course because they could ensure “participants had at least a basic idea of open innovation methods, including the principle of idea competitions.”

Using accepted frameworks from previous studies, the researchers found that intrinsic (or hedonic) benefits did indeed lower moral disengagement. But, surprisingly, they found that extrinsic (monetary) benefits did not increase moral disengagement.

It’s surprising because previous research had shown the opposite. The researchers theorised that perhaps people are only more likely to become morally disengaged if more is at stake – as the previous research had tested on business owners.

“The livelihood of entrepreneurs depends on their economic success, while for [our] participants winning an idea competition is merely an add-on compared to other sources of income.”

This suggests organisations should be wary of the context into which they are introducing competitions. The step-challenge we’re doing would seem fine – a pub lunch might be nice but it’s a small enough reward that some people in our office have decided they’d rather not be involved.

But imagine a competition between entry-level sales staff, who could really use the extra bonus to pay rent. What would they be willing to justify?

Strategic designs

If competitions are something your organisation is interested in, the researchers offer advice on the best way to reduce moral disengagement through competition design strategies.

“These design strategies could work as a countermeasure against disengaging from one’s own moral standards by initiating and supporting existing self-regulation and self-sanction among participants.”

Prior to starting the competition, the researchers recommend explicitly stating the purpose and seriousness of the competition, as well as the time and energy that will be expected of participants.

They recommend explicitly addressing moral disengagement and making clear how harmful that behaviour can be, as well as the consequences of unethical behaviour.

“Organisers could also fight euphemistic labelling by highlighting shared responsibility for the effective outcome of the competition and by appealing to the ‘better nature’ of participants,” the study says.

“Participants are consequently not competing against faceless and neutral agents but rather against real human beings, and their contributions will have an impact on real people.”

By clearly defining the importance of participants’ personal responsibility for the group’s outcome, the organisers can lessen the chance of the diffusion and displacement mechanism within moral disengagement. This should also stop any chance of ‘dehumanising’ competitors.

They also recommend reinforcing this messaging throughout the competition, rather than just saying it up front.


Learn how to properly review and reward performance with the ‘Managing performance’ short course.

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Moral disengagement and workplace competitions


Are competitions between colleagues a good idea? And if so, how should you design them?

Competition at work can be fun. Take a ‘step-challenge’ for example, which my office is currently running. We’ve split into teams to see who can take the most steps in a week. At the end of it, the winners will be getting a free pub lunch. The overarching goal is to ensure we all make positive changes in our work routines – encouraging us to overcome the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.

Competitions can also be about productivity – used to motivate staff in their roles – such as when a company rewards its top salesperson.

The criticism of workplace competitions are that you can risk team cohesion and encourage unethical behaviour. Recent research sheds new light on these issues.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic

As HRM has written about in the past, extrinsic motives are behaviours that are rewarded externally (via money, prizes, etc.) and intrinsic motives are behaviours that are rewarding in and of themselves. Thinking back to our step challenge, whether you’re focused on the pub lunch or the health benefits of walking would be the difference between whether or not you are extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.

HR expert Tim Baker, who wrote the above article, pointed out how offering a bonus to staff can backfire. “When incentives are used to improve performance, they can unintentionally take the employee’s attention off the work the reward is designed to enhance. The promise of a bonus, shifts the employee’s focus from the task to the prize.”

The obvious negative effect of this is on engagement. Take the bonus away, and will the employee still want to do the job? But perhaps another thing to be aware of is disengagement of an ethical variety.

Research published in the International Journal of Innovation Management looked at whether there was a correlation between monetary benefits and moral disengagement. And whether there was a negative correlation between hedonic motivations (non-monetary benefits, such as the task being fun to do) and moral disengagement.

Choosing to do right

Moral disengagement is a really useful term, and not just in reference to competitions. Very often we think of our moral sense as something that’s permanent, and operating each time we make a decision. But that’s not the case. It can be turned on and off.

The researchers in the above study define moral disengagement as the phenomenon in which people are able to “disengage from the self-regulatory process that normally impedes individuals from acting in a way inconsistent with their own moral standards.”

Think of it in the context of a sports game. If you hate the other team enough, you may make the decision to suspend your normal code against playing rough.

The researchers point out several mechanisms of moral disengagement:

  • Moral justification: making harmful decisions and justifying them by saying they are socially or personally worthwhile. In the sports game, this would be the thought that “playing rough is the only way we will win”.
  • Euphemistic labelling: a thought pattern develops wherein unacceptable behaviour is portrayed as ‘benign’ or you remove personal responsibility from that behaviour. “We were just passionate out there.”
  • Advantageous comparison: justifying unethical behaviour by comparing it to worse behaviour, so mentally telling yourself “well, that wasn’t as bad as they were playing”
  • Displacement and diffusion of responsibility: this is where you place the moral blame on others or the situation itself. “They were asking for it” or “It’s not just us, everyone does it”.
  • Disregarding and distorting consequences: conducting unethical behaviour is justified by lowering expectations of consequences or ignoring them completely (possibly through misapprehension). “Nobody got hurt in the long run.”
  • Attribution of blame and dehumanising: consequences of behaviour on victims are minimised or ignored when you (the morally disengaged) no longer value the victim’s feelings, hopes and concerns and instead see them as “sub-human objects”. “That pack of animals deserve whatever we dish out.”

Money over morality

To test their hypotheses, the researchers sent out a quantitative survey regarding acceptable behaviour in an idea competition to students enrolled in a master’s degree program at a German university. The specific course that the students were enrolled in was based on fundamentals of innovation and technology management. They chose these students in this course because they could ensure “participants had at least a basic idea of open innovation methods, including the principle of idea competitions.”

Using accepted frameworks from previous studies, the researchers found that intrinsic (or hedonic) benefits did indeed lower moral disengagement. But, surprisingly, they found that extrinsic (monetary) benefits did not increase moral disengagement.

It’s surprising because previous research had shown the opposite. The researchers theorised that perhaps people are only more likely to become morally disengaged if more is at stake – as the previous research had tested on business owners.

“The livelihood of entrepreneurs depends on their economic success, while for [our] participants winning an idea competition is merely an add-on compared to other sources of income.”

This suggests organisations should be wary of the context into which they are introducing competitions. The step-challenge we’re doing would seem fine – a pub lunch might be nice but it’s a small enough reward that some people in our office have decided they’d rather not be involved.

But imagine a competition between entry-level sales staff, who could really use the extra bonus to pay rent. What would they be willing to justify?

Strategic designs

If competitions are something your organisation is interested in, the researchers offer advice on the best way to reduce moral disengagement through competition design strategies.

“These design strategies could work as a countermeasure against disengaging from one’s own moral standards by initiating and supporting existing self-regulation and self-sanction among participants.”

Prior to starting the competition, the researchers recommend explicitly stating the purpose and seriousness of the competition, as well as the time and energy that will be expected of participants.

They recommend explicitly addressing moral disengagement and making clear how harmful that behaviour can be, as well as the consequences of unethical behaviour.

“Organisers could also fight euphemistic labelling by highlighting shared responsibility for the effective outcome of the competition and by appealing to the ‘better nature’ of participants,” the study says.

“Participants are consequently not competing against faceless and neutral agents but rather against real human beings, and their contributions will have an impact on real people.”

By clearly defining the importance of participants’ personal responsibility for the group’s outcome, the organisers can lessen the chance of the diffusion and displacement mechanism within moral disengagement. This should also stop any chance of ‘dehumanising’ competitors.

They also recommend reinforcing this messaging throughout the competition, rather than just saying it up front.


Learn how to properly review and reward performance with the ‘Managing performance’ short course.

Leave a reply

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