“Just say whatever you need to say to get them to stay. We can’t lose any more techs or we’ll have to announce huge delays on the launch. I’m holding you accountable for making sure that doesn’t happen.”
Brian,* an executive Ron coached, told him about this ultimatum he’d received from his boss. He explained that the project had been under-resourced, people were exhausted from working under impossible deadlines, and he felt ashamed of the corners he feared had been cut to meet them. Now, being asked to manipulate and lie to his people crossed the line for Brian. Despite feeling guilty for abandoning his team, he resigned.
Ironically, Brian’s boss was shocked by his resignation. Reminding him of his high salary, perks, and multiple promotions, he asked Brian, “What else do you want?”
What Brian experienced was what medical doctors and social scientists refer to as “moral injury,” and what he wanted was justice.
Moral injury, also known as the wounding of the soul, was first studied in veterans who’d witnessed atrocities of war. More recently, this research has been extended to health care, education, social work, and other high-pressure and often under-resourced occupations. The past two years have made it increasingly clear that moral injury can occur in many contexts and populations, including the workplace. Moral injury is experienced as a trauma response to witnessing or participating in workplace behaviors that contradict one’s moral beliefs in high-stakes situations and that have the potential of harming others physically, psychologically, socially, or economically.
People may be leaving companies (in some cases “rage quitting”) because of more than just feeling burned out or wanting more flexible work arrangements. Many may be leaving because their conscience has been wounded and their innate sense of justice violated.
The pandemic and resulting upheaval of the workplace have shone a bright spotlight on organizational experiences we’ve too long written off as mere annoyances or ineffective management. But as it turns out, their consequences can be more damaging than we understood. The mass exodus from our workplaces is, in part, a proclamation that people can’t — and won’t — tolerate mistreatment, injustice, and incompetence from their leaders anymore, particularly at the expense of their dignity and values.
Organizational conditions that give rise to moral injury violate our sense of justice, which according to some social science theories is hardwired into our brains. This means that perceptions of justice (or injustice) in the workplace have profound effects on employees. Ron’s research on organizational justice bears this out. When people feel subjected to unfair or undignified conditions, they’re four times more likely to act with self-interest and dishonesty.
While moral injury is not the same as PTSD, both can be understood as psychological trauma with biological markers and consequences. PTSD is associated with a threat to our mortality and damages our sense of safety; moral injury wounds our morality and our sense of trust. There is growing evidence that social and emotional experiences have physiological consequences. Social pain is processed in the same brain regions as physical pain, according to MRI studies, and in most languages people use the same words to describe social pain as they do physical pain.
Moral injury has been shown to lead to lasting psychological, physical, spiritual, behavioral, and social harm. Psychological reactions include feelings of grief, anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, or disgust. Some individuals may experience a spiritual or existential crisis or even become physically ill. And, as was the case with Brian, disillusionment resulting from moral injury at work may prompt resignation and resentment.
To be clear, we’re not advocating for leaders to walk on eggshells, vigilantly scrutinizing everything they say in order to coddle people. And yes, sometimes facing difficult circumstances requires that empathy and grace go both ways when bosses aren’t at their best. But as this new world of work unfolds before us and the pact between employee and employer gets rewritten, leaders have to learn and evolve to keep pace. Here are a few things you can do to ensure your actions aren’t unintentionally injuring the moral center of those you lead.
Don’t hide hypocrisy under a cloak of fairness.
As is the case with many social experiences, fairness ultimately resides in the eye of the beholder. Set aside time to have a conversation with your team about what they perceive to be fair and unfair. And most importantly, make sure you’re living by the same rules you ask others to.
For example, let’s say that to demonstrate commitment to your company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, you announce that you aim to have a diverse slate of candidates for an open position and that your team will participate in inclusion training together. Because you’ve made this public, you feel you’ve been fair to everyone. But when the person on your team who’d hoped to be promoted into the position complains to you privately, you tell them, “Don’t worry, they won’t be able to find a suitable candidate and then I’ll be able to give you the job. Then at least I can say I tried.” Without realizing it, you’ve made them feel ashamed, not proud, of the way they’ll get promoted. Then, when the day of the training arrives, you “suddenly” have an urgent meeting and can’t attend, but later play the victim to your team: “They ask us to commit to this training and then pull us out at the last minute.”
Make sure you’re setting the example of fairness and keeping the commitments you’re asking others to make. This will prevent your team from feeling a sense of compromise, outrage, and resentment, and exposing the hypocrisy you worked so hard to conceal.
Know the values by which others are assessing your actions.
Moral injuries are often the result of a misalignment between values and actions — others’ values and your actions. While you can’t accommodate everyone’s preferences on all your decisions, you can avoid having the inevitable disappointments you’ll sometimes need to cause turn into moral injury.
For example, one executive Ron coached, Elaine,* was in a similar predicament to Brian and needed to move up the schedule on a project by more than a week to meet a customer’s deadline. She knew this was going to conflict with two team members’ previous personal commitments — a wedding and a planned vacation — and she knew that two of her quality assurance people would fear compromising the very quality standards they were charged to protect. The executive acknowledged these conflicts when she announced the change and openly affirmed the values of those it was impacting: values of putting family first and doing quality work, which she herself had publicly espoused. Then, she engaged the team in a problem-solving conversation on how to meet the deadline without sacrificing quality or personal commitments. The avoidance of putting others in the moral bind of compromising core values averted a potential moral injury.
Be sure priorities are appropriately resourced.
One of the most common ways leaders inadvertently inflict moral injuries is by asking people to commit to something for which they ultimately feel set up to fail. Far more than a common “organizational nuisance,” setting priorities without giving people the necessary skills, budget, and time to complete them causes people to feel like inherent failures. As was true with Brian’s team, if people fear letting you down, they’ll exhaust themselves into sleep-deprived wrecks trying to heroically deliver the impossible.
Of course, unforeseen circumstances will occasionally require a team to rise to a challenge. But when such heroics become a way of life, so does moral injury. The umbrage, guilt, and self-contempt people feel when they can’t do their best work leaves them demoralized — especially when that work is declared a top priority and is therefore especially visible. Be sure that those you ask to deliver critical results tell you that the budget and time you’ve given them and the skills they have are sufficient for success. If they tell you they aren’t, believe them and rectify things.
Watch out for benevolent gaslighting.
With the best of intentions, leaders regularly cause moral injury by tolerating things they shouldn’t. From bad behavior to poor performance, leaders ignore, turn a blind eye to, or patently justify things that ultimately offend those they lead.
One of the most notorious examples of this is when leaders use the expression, “assume beneficial intent.” At face value, the sentiment behind this oft-used expression is noble — give people the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go as planned. But we’ve seen more than a few eyes roll when this incantation gets invoked as a way of heading legitimate complaints off at the pass. Leaders should certainly never invite recreational complaining. But when people bring forward valid concerns about a member of the team, rest assured others are having to bear the burden.
When someone routinely acts inconsiderately or self-servingly, your failure to address it leads others to conclude that you see that behavior as acceptable. This silences and demeans those trying to live up to higher standards. It also embeds duplicity into your team, giving everyone permission to say one thing but do another. This can result in shame, guilt, and self-doubt for those trying not to succumb to lower standards — the very people you want to keep. What you may believe is showing grace to someone struggling ends up gaslighting those burdened with the fallout. When unacceptable performance or behavior shows up, be the first one to address it before your team brings it up.
Don’t add moral insult to moral injury.
Leaders are scrambling to stem the tide of unprecedented mass resignations. People’s tolerance of organizational nonsense has reached its limits, and a deeper desire for meaning and belonging has swelled. Well-meaning leaders have grasped at the wrong straws to help employees feel better. For example, in the face of significant levels of burnout in 2021, many organizations purchased subscriptions to wellness apps, gave employees spa gift cards, or offered resilience training. However, these popular solutions cannot address deeper issues stemming from systemic factors like a lack of inclusion or long-tolerated bullying.
In one organization Ludmila consulted for, employees called these token gestures “spalencing” (spa + silencing), suggesting their leaders were out of touch with how bad things actually were. People need to know they and their work matter and that you genuinely care about their needs. That means you first have to understand their needs, and then develop solutions together to meet them. When you blanket simplistic solutions over painful conditions, people feel dismissed, insulted, and like their needs are invalidated. You’d be better off doing nothing than doing something that makes the injury worse.
Make amends when you cause moral harm.
Should you discover that your actions or words led others to feel as though they compromised their values, apologize and make amends. Listen remorsefully and empathetically to how they felt about the situation, knowing that guilt, shame, anxiety, and anger are just some emotions that might accompany what you hear. Don’t defend or try to “explain” yourself. Ask people what you could do to restore lost trust and what advice they have for what you could do differently if faced with similar circumstances.
Many people in the workplace are hurting. They yearn for a sense of humanity and community to be part of their work experience. And they need leaders who will help protect, honor, and strengthen their personal values and moral center, not put them into positions where they feel forced to compromise or abandon them.
Five years from now, when those you lead today speak about their most important values, will their morally centered convictions have grown because of you, or despite you?
* Real names have been changed.