Learning about moral issues in organizations: 'A continuous process of questioning and discussion'

June 9 2023

Researcher Henriëtte Bout studied how organizations deal with moral issues and how knowledge transfer contributes to this. 'More and more organizations want to learn about this, but how can this be done in a sustainable way so that it benefits the entire organization?' Today Bout will receive her doctorate from Nyenrode Business University. In her research, she mainly focused on the factors that support or hinder learning about moral issues in organizations. The research offers insights for organizations that want to institutionalize moral insights and provides guidance on how to create a working environment in which moral issues can be discussed.

A new model for moral issues in organizations

Within more and more organizations, reflection discussions are being organized to learn about moral issues. The moral insights recorded are called 'moresprudence'. Bout wanted to know how moresprudence contributes to learning about moral issues. 'There are models described about knowledge development in organizations, but they are more focused on increasing productivity or gaining competitive advantage. Those are different kinds of issues from moral issues. I wanted to see whether a commonly used model for organizational learning also works for learning about moral issues, and specifically how moresprudence can support this.'

Transferring moral insights remains difficult

A major challenge for organizations is to transfer moral insights and to ensure that employees act on them. 'When organizations want to institutionalize a particular insight related to business, they tend to transfer it as a prescription: go and do this. It is written down and imposed and often disseminated via intranet or the mail. It is clear from my research that this does not work for conveying moral insights because that approach is too cognitive. If behaving a certain way is imposed on an employee, but they do not want to do this based on their own moral convictions, they will not do so. We hardly ever allow morality to be imposed on us from above. Moral insights are only partly cognitive in nature. There is also a very strong affective component to morality. If an employee has personally experienced what it is like to wrestle with a particular moral issue, they are more receptive to knowledge about it. Someone who has experienced this can better relate to the moral insight gained about it within the organization. If you take this into account as an organization, then you will know that you mustn’t try to disseminate the insight instantly, and not just via intranet or email, but that you have to let employees experience it. So that they can relate to it and internalize it.'

Organizations can do a lot themselves, but not everything

Bout states that expertise is present in organizations to learn about moral issues as an organization. But an ethicist still plays an important role. For instance, in setting up and supervising moral reflection and in developing moresprudence.  'Involving an ethicist can add value because they can make certain analyses about how employees deal with moral issues. Those insights can help managers encourage people to do the right thing.'

Always keep on questioning

According to Bout it is important to approach moral insights as insights that we should always keep on questioning. A moral insight is not set in stone and remains open for discussion. 'Moresprudence supports organizational learning about moral issues if it is offered in the right form, aimed at the right target group and level in the organization and forms an integral  part of  accompanying strategic policy.'


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