The Factors Behind Ethical Behavior in the Workplace

Topic(s): ethics
Publication: Academy of Management Review
Article: Moral maturation and moral conation: A capacity approach to explaining moral thought and action
Authors: S.T. Hannah, B.J. Avolio, D.R. May
Reviewed by: Neil Morelli

When it comes to identifying unethical behavior in politics, business, and sports, all it takes is a casual review of the news. With a greater spotlight being placed on understanding and promoting ethical practices in the workplace, Hannah, Avolio, and May’s goal was to help determine what it means to have “moral capacity” in the workplace and how that capacity affects ethical behavior.


Hannah et al. specifically focused on moral challenges, or knowing the correct thing to do but having conflicting values. The reaction to a moral dilemma is usually made of two parts a cognition process and a conation process. In other words, how you think about the dilemma and what you do about the dilemma. The authors’ offered a theoretical model that describes the factors underlying the moral cognition and conation (action) processes.

To summarize the model, the moral cognition process includes having the moral sensitivity to identify the dilemma and the judgment to choose the best option for handling it. The conation, or action, process includes having the motivation to commit to a particular course of action and the persistence to overcome fatigue or obstacles that get in the way. The factors underlying the moral cognition process are grouped into a category called moral maturation capacities, or the ability to attend to and retain morally relevant information. The factors underlying the moral conation process are similarly named moral conation capacities, or the ability to take responsibility for a moral dilemma and take action in the face of adversity.


A closer inspection of the individual components of both moral maturation and moral conation is highly recommended for both researchers and practitioners who are interested in the psychological processes of ethical behavior in the workplace, but what immediate impact can this model have for practice? The authors note that these capacities are both malleable and measurable, meaning that these capacities could be targeted in selection processes and training and development initiatives. The ultimate goal is to decrease the amount of unethical behavior by increasing moral capacity.


Hannah, S. T., Avolio, B. J., & May, D. R. (2011). Moral maturation and moral conation: A capacity approach to explaining moral thought and action. Academy of Management Review, 36(4), 663-685.

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