Is a person’s moral behavior directly tied to his or her performance at work? Most people believe it is, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Although arguments can be made that an individual’s moral behavior is, or should be, irrelevant to their overall competence, we found consistent support that immoral behavior reduced judgments of people’s competence,” said lead author Jennifer Stellar, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto.
For the study, Stellar and co-author, Robb Willer, Ph.D., of Stanford University, conducted a series of six experiments involving more than 1,500 participants. Throughout these experiments, the researchers depicted individuals acting immorally in hypothetical scenarios, such as shoplifting, stealing money from a donation jar, acting selfishly in economic games, cheating on a lab task, or receiving low morality ratings from coworkers. In other cases, the person was depicted as acting morally, such as donating money to charity.
Participants were then asked to rate how competent they believed each person to be at a particular task. For example, in one experiment, participants were asked how good they believed the hypothetical individual was at his or her job on a scale of one to 10.
In each of these experiments, participants consistently rated individuals who had committed moral transgressions as less capable of doing their jobs, completing specific tasks or being generally competent.
In general, people who were depicted as immoral were less well-liked and therefore perceived as worse in every way, including being less competent.
Stellar said she was surprised by these findings because in one of their early experiments, the researchers asked participants if morality was associated with competence, and most said it didn’t matter.
“We found that most people rated immoral behavior in one’s private life as irrelevant to determining how good that person was at their job. Essentially, people said they didn’t think they would use moral information in that way, but when they were provided with it, they did.”
Further evidence suggested that people engaged in immoral behaviors were seen as less competent because their actions caused them to be viewed as low in social intelligence.
“Social intelligence is often conceived of as the ability to manage complex social situations,” said Stellar. “It includes characteristics such as taking the others’ perspectives, being adaptable, managing impressions of oneself, and adhering to established social norms.”
“A person who is socially intelligent would understand when and why a coworker is angry and effectively manage their coworker’s potentially destructive emotional response.”
In one experiement, however, the researchers counteracted the concerns about social intelligence by telling some participants that the hypothetical individual’s coworkers rated him or her high in social intelligence.
“We found that when targets received high social intelligence ratings, immoral targets were no longer perceived as less competent than moral targets,” said Stellar.
While more studies are needed, Stellar believes that the findings suggest that people view immoral but socially intelligent individuals as Machiavellian, cunning, and strategic, rather than socially incompetent.