Risk on the Moral High Road

If, as an HR leader, you’re going to take a stand on ethical grounds, you had better be ready for the backlash if you change your mind later on.

That seems to be a key lesson to emerge from the findings of research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

For their study, Tamar Kreps, an assistant professor in the department of management at the University of Utah, and Kristin Laurin, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, conducted a series of 15 online experiments that involved more than 5,500 participants between the ages of 18 and 77.

In each experiment, these individuals were provided information about political or corporate leaders who had changed their opinions on a particular subject. Some participants were told that the leaders staked out their original positions on moral grounds, while others were informed that these initial stances were based on a more pragmatic view, such as “it was good for the economy.”

Across the multiple studies Kreps and Laurin conducted, they found that participants saw leaders who changed their minds after taking a moral stand as being hypocritical. In most cases, these individuals also perceived these leaders as “less effective and worthy of their support than leaders whose initial stance was pragmatic,” according to a statement.

“Leaders may choose to take moral stances, believing that this will improve audiences’ perceptions. And it does, initially,” says Kreps.

“But all people, even leaders, have to change their minds sometimes. Our research shows that leaders who change their moral minds are seen as more hypocritical, and not as courageous or flexible, compared with those whose initial view was based on a pragmatic argument.”

That perception can be tough to shake, too. According to the authors, they “tried to test various factors we thought might weaken the effect” across several studies. For example, the authors asked participants how they would feel if the leader “did not rely on popular support and therefore would have no reason to pander” or “used the same moral value in the later view as in the earlier view.”

Still, no dice.

“None of those things made a difference,” says Kreps. “Initially moral mind-changers consistently seemed more hypocritical” to those taking part in the study.

While opining that moral beliefs tend to stay constant over time, Kreps cautions that leaders should take the ethical high road on a given issue only if they genuinely feel that way.

“Taking an inauthentic moral view to try to pander to a moralizing audience could backfire,” she says, “if a leader needs to change that view later on.”

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