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The Making of Moral Teams


Strong role models and social get-togethers set teams on the right path

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What makes for a good team? It’s a question that’s been asked by NHL general managers, business executives and organizational scholars for generations. They don’t all have the same answer, but typical replies involve some combination of solid leadership, effective communication and access to resources. You don’t usually hear mentions of morals or ethics but that’s changing, says Addison Maerz, a postdoctoral fellow in people analytics at Smith School of Business.      

“Ethics and morals in the workplace is not a new area of study, but organizations are facing a lot of pressure from the public and even employees to at least appear moral and ethical in the way they do business these days,” says Maerz.

That attention has meant that teams scholars such as Maerz are focusing more on morals and ethics as well. And what they’re finding is that they can make a big impact on team performance.

In one paper, Maerz and his colleagues surveyed university undergraduates working on team projects to determine what happens when a group is populated with morally dubious people. In a second study, co-authored by Maerz, researchers surveyed actual employees to determine how leaders can encourage their team members to act morally.   

Smith Business Insight reached out to Maerz to learn more about the studies and the takeaways for organizations trying to build teams with strong moral and ethical behaviour.

In that first study, you looked at the role of “moral disengagement.” What is it and how does it, as you found, lower team co-operation?

We all have these internal standards that guide our behaviour. You don’t steal not just because it’s against the law but also because you know it’s the wrong thing to do. Moral disengagement describes a collection of cognitive manoeuvre people use to turn off those internal standards. Within a team setting, you could rationalize skipping a meeting by saying there are enough people there already. So we argue that if you have more people on the team with a high propensity to morally disengage, it makes it easier for them to rationalize shirking their duties as team members. And that ultimately hurts team co-operation and performance.  

You found, though, that moral disengagement can be counteracted in teams with lots of positive social interactions, or, as you call it, strong “collective extraversion.” How does that work? 

When those interactions are part of the team’s standard operating procedure—maybe you hang out a lot in the breakout room or you often go out for lunch—you can’t help but get to know each other. And that makes it harder to rationalize moral disengagement from the team, because now that e-mail you’re ignoring isn’t just from somebody you work with. It’s also from someone you know has a baby at home and really needs you to get your part done so that they can go home for the weekend.    

In the second study, you also found that leaders play a big role in encouraging morally courageous behaviour (MCB) in employees. In fact, you found that leader role modelling influences MCB above and beyond an organization’s ethical culture or safety climate. That seems surprising.

Not necessarily. Leaders play a big role in influencing employee behaviour because of their positions in the organization. They have a lot of direct control over things that are important to employees, whether it’s desirable assignments or pay raises. They also often hold positions that employees aspire to have one day. For these reasons, they’re often one of the most visible models of behaviour for employees. Unlike culture and climate, which we do know guide behaviour but are largely invisible, leaders are people you see all the time. And the example they set is very important for the people who report to them.

It's noteworthy, though, that you found those positive moral influences might last even when the role model has left the organization.   

It’s true. One of the questions whenever you’re looking at, say, an ethical leader or role model is what happens when they’re removed or replaced with a slightly less ethical leader. Do employees just go back to their regular tendencies? Our findings suggest that role models actually create some lasting change in their employees by shaping how they approach certain issues. This can be important for organizations trying to make their employees behave more ethically.  

What else should organizations keep in mind when trying to encourage moral or ethical behaviour in their employees?

I think our research underscores how important it is for employees to have good role models at work. But being a leader doesn’t just make you a role model. If employees don’t like or respect you, then they won’t really want to be like you. So, when thinking about people for leadership positions, organizations need to not only ask if this person makes ethical decisions, but can this person also be a good role model to employees.

Your research also underscores how important it is for organizations to take into account moral disengagement in teams. How should they do that?

The usual way you measure moral disengagement is with surveys. And you can do that by integrating it into the surveys that employees already get. But if you’re a manager putting together a team, you don’t always have the luxury of picking from a giant roster. So a more important takeaway is just to be aware of how moral disengagement can inhibit co-operation and how it can be counteracted by promoting sociability and helping team members see each other as human beings. Some ethics training for teams can also be helpful, as can making sure the team is led by someone who will actually hold people accountable.