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Is morality key to successful change?

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Is morality key to successful change?

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A recent report from McKinsey highlighted various things that they believe are crucial to successful change.  They highlight things such as excellent communication and persistence.

One thing that doesn’t come up is the morality of the leader/s.  Indeed, morality doesn’t really come up in any discussion around successful change management.

A recent study suggests that may be something we should think about again.

The paper, from researchers at UC Berkeley, reveals that the way a project is framed, especially from a moral perspective, can have a huge impact on its eventual success.

“Because actors’ intentions are fundamental to making sense of their actions, moral justifications may signal moral character and rally more support than pragmatic justifications,” they explain.

The research saw a few hundred participants read a proposal for change, which in this case was healthier meals being offered for free to employees, from a CEO.

The participants were split into two groups.  In one, the motivation for the intervention was to motivate staff to work longer and take less time off.

The second group read a statement whereby the motivation was to improve the wellbeing of employees and help them obtain a better quality of life.

Having read the statement, each participant was asked to rate the CEO on a 7 point scale across nine separate traits associated with morality.

The importance of morality

The results revealed that people were much more swayed by the CEO when the project was framed in the more morally just way.

What’s more, when the CEO framed the project in this way, people were also more likely to perceive them as moral and upstanding, with the project spilling over into a reflection of their character.

The value of this was shown in another experiment whereby participants were asked their thoughts on a number of projects.  This time they had no insight into the moral framing of the projects themselves, but did know how upstanding the manager was that was proposing them.

Once again, it emerged that the plan to offer healthier meals to employees garnered much more support when the boss was described as highly compassionate, kind and caring than when they were described in much colder terms.

Interestingly, the study also found that such moral goodness was also a valuable buffer against a project that didn’t go to plan.  Such executives seemed to avoid the kind of backlash usually reserved for leads of failed projects.

This was shown via another experiment, this time around giving a pay rise to employees.  In one group, the potential rise was framed as a fair way of recognizing the talented employees, whereas in the other group it was framed as a way of keeping them productive and loyal.

This time however, the pay rise wasn’t possible because of unanticipated economic difficulties.  When the pay rise had been framed as a moral decision, the CEO escaped from this climb down unscathed.

“We found that use of a moral policy frame somewhat insulated a leader from moral outrage—even after the leader reneged on a commitment,” the researchers conclude.

All of which is maybe something to think about the next time you want to change your organization.

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