Positive Outcomes in the Context of Non-Willful Moral Failure

Botha, Helet, Business Administration - Darden School of Business, University of Virginia
Parmar, Bidhan, DA-Darden School, University of Virginia

In this dissertation, I define and draw attention to a phenomenon I call “non-willful moral failure”, and make a case for why it should be taken seriously by business ethics scholars. Even given ethical intent and moral awareness, individuals are still likely to experience causing harm to groups and individuals they care about. I substantiate this claim by showing how non-willful moral failure derives from prominent features of human psychology: (1) bounded rationality, or awareness (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011); and (2) multiple, distinct cooperative motivations (Tomasello, 2016).

Because of their responsibilities to multiple stakeholders, business managers and executives are particularly likely to experience non-willful moral failure. We therefore need to work towards understanding the conditions under which this experience will coincide with positive outcomes. Over three projects, I investigate how different positive outcomes result from individuals’ perception of whether change is possible in the domains of: personality (Paper 1); moral character (Paper 2); and conflicting stakeholder interests (Paper 3).

In the first paper, I investigate the antecedents of individuals’ efforts to repair relationships after interpersonal transgressions. In two online studies, I show that transgressors who believe that personality can change over time (Dweck, 2006; Dweck et al. 1995) do more to repair their damaged relationships. This research makes a unique contribution to our understanding of individual differences in reparative efforts, as it is the first to show the effect of a growth mindset on reparative effort while controlling for the effect of guilt-proneness (Tangney, 1991; Tangney & Dearing, 2003).

The second paper reveals the conditions under which managers will reflect on their ethical decisions. I conducted two online experiments in which we manipulated the valence consequences for others (Baumeister et al., 2001), and tested for an effect on participants’ willingness to reflect on the decision post hoc (Dane & Sonenshein, 2015). Participants reported a higher likelihood to reflect when their decision had negative as opposed to positive consequences for others. However, interestingly, this pattern of results only applied to individuals who believe that moral character can change over time.

In the final paper I detail the psychological conditions under which managers will work creatively to avoid serving one stakeholder over another. Drawing from research on cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957; Hinojosa et al., 2017; Tetlock et al., 1996), and creative problem-solving in organizations (Madjar et al., 2011), I develop a model of the psychological process through which managers are able to integrate conflicting interests, and thus avoid a trade-off decision. This paper contributes to stakeholder theory by introducing a psychological perspective to the study of conflicting stakeholder interests. It is also the first work to identify empirically testable mechanisms that motivate and enable managers to “bring [conflicting stakeholder] interests together” (Freeman et al., 2010: 288).

Taken together, these papers suggest that when individuals think of personality, character, and conflicting stakeholder interests as having the potential to change, they are more likely to: (A) repair relationships after failure (Paper 1); (B) learn from failure (Paper 2); and (C) avoid failure through creative problem-solving (Paper 3).

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Stakeholder Theory , Ethical Decision-Making, Ethical Expertise, Moral Failure, Mindset
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