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Want moral behavior? Pay attention to moral attentiveness

We may see ethics in black and white or infinite shades of gray. But whether we view our decisions as ethical issues at all depends on our level of moral attentiveness, a concept developed by Scott Reynolds, an assistant professor of business ethics at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

New research by Reynolds finds that knowing a person’s level of moral attentiveness can predict his level of moral behavior over time, a notion that could have important ramifications in the workplace.

A new view of ethics
In a series of studies, Reynolds first established moral attentiveness as a demonstrable personality trait—along the lines of extroversion or pragmatism—that can be rated on a seven-point scale with a simple, non-judgmental self-assessment. “The concept is that each of us views the world through a filter,” Reynolds says. “Some of us are actively looking for moral issues. And for others, it’s the last thing on their minds. The rest are somewhere in between.”

This is a departure from conventional theory which has viewed ethics in more objective terms: an ethical issue exists and either you see it (and are right) or don’t (and are wrong). Reynolds, on the other hand, finds that different people view the same situation differently.

In one study, for instance, Reynolds posed the ambiguous scenario of a medical supply that has not been delivered on time due to a break in the supply chain. Is this a moral issue? Some participants saw simply a logistical or customer service issue while others saw a moral issue: the breakdown is doing harm. “If I ask students to provide examples of ethical issues they have encountered at work, one will come with 55 stories to tell and another can’t think of a single one,” Reynolds says. “They work in the same industry, doing the same job, encountering the same situations. One sees the same situation as a business decision, the other as a moral decision. Same decision—different interpretation.”

Predicting moral behavior
In a final study, Reynolds had MBA students assess their level of moral attentiveness and then asked colleagues from their study teams—people who know them well over months of night-and-day work together—to rate each other’s character. Those with a high degree of moral attentiveness were judged by teammates to be people who consistently act in a highly moral fashion. Those with a low degree of moral attentiveness were deemed by teammates to behave in a less moral way. “The filter of the individual predicted the ratings they got from their teammates,” Reynolds says.

He cautions that high moral attentiveness is no guarantee of moral behavior. Likewise, low moral attentiveness doesn’t necessarily mean immoral behavior is inevitable. “But for those who see an ethical issue, they are well down the path of finding an ethical solution,” Reynolds adds. “And those who don’t see an ethical issue at all, the odds that they will act ethically seem to be reduced.”

Awareness is power
Given the increasing societal pressure on businesses to behave ethically and responsibly, managers and boards of directors might do well to begin assessing the moral attentiveness of their employees and recruits, Reynolds suggests. The assessment could easily be added to a battery of interview questions or used to help diagnose friction within a team.

For individuals, moral attentiveness is about self-awareness. “You can’t really change your trait,” Reynolds says. “But you can find a partner to consult with, or solicit feedback in meetings. Try to become more aware of the ethical nature of decision-making. You can adapt your behavior to compensate.”

Reynolds paper “Moral Attentiveness: Who Pays Attention to the Moral Aspects of Life?” is published in the September 2008 Journal of Applied Psychology.