Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 106, Issue 4, pp 491–502

Moral Stress: Considering the Nature and Effects of Managerial Moral Uncertainty


    • Foster School of BusinessUniversity of Washington
  • Bradley P. Owens
    • School of ManagementSUNY Buffalo
  • Alex L. Rubenstein
    • Department of Management, Warrington College of Business AdministrationUniversity of Florida

DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-1013-8

Cite this article as:
Reynolds, S.J., Owens, B.P. & Rubenstein, A.L. J Bus Ethics (2012) 106: 491. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-1013-8


To better illuminate aspects of stress that are relevant to the moral domain, we present a definition and theoretical model of “moral stress.” Our definition posits that moral stress is a psychological state born of an individual’s uncertainty about his or her ability to fulfill relevant moral obligations. This definition assumes a self-and-others relational basis for moral stress. Accordingly, our model draws from a theory of the self (identity theory) and a theory of others (stakeholder theory) to suggest that this uncertainty arises as a manager faces competing claims for limited resources from multiple stakeholders and/or across multiple role identities. We further propose that the extent to which the manager is attentive to the moral aspects of the claims (i.e., moral attentiveness) moderates these effects. We identify several consequences of managerial moral stress and discuss theoretical, empirical, and practical implications of our approach. Most importantly, we argue that this work paves an important path for considering stress through the lens of morality.


Moral stressMoral decision-makingMoral behavior

Managers are regularly if not continuously pressed to fulfill their fiduciary obligations to owners (Friedman 1962). Those obligations notwithstanding, numerous high-profile ethics scandals have spurred non-owner stakeholders to become even more vocal in their demands for moral behavior from managers (e.g., Rehbein et al. 2004), and many of these demands are materializing in the workplace in a variety of forms (e.g., Sarbanes–Oxley, social auditing). The burdens of these varied moral obligations undoubtedly impose upon managers a stress that impacts both their professional and personal lives (Waters and Bird 1987).

To date, many researchers have acknowledged, either explicitly or implicitly, that managerial stress can be associated with the various moral obligations that managers hold. The predominant view in the general stress literature, however, has been that the concept of “stress” presupposes that the factors of stress have moral components and that there is nothing about these moral components that demand special consideration (e.g., Glasberg et al. 2006). The fact that the items and measures most frequently associated with stress (e.g., LePine et al. 2004; Rizzo et al. 1970) are plainly amoral in content and tone, however, gives cause to question this claim. Accordingly, a handful of scholars have at least implied that there is something unique about stress rooted in moral obligations and have used the term “moral stress” to emphasize it as a distinct concept (e.g., Waters and Bird 1987; Wyld and Jones 1997). Beyond very cursory references, however, little has been theoretically or empirically developed along this front and therefore those aspects of stress that relate to the moral domain remain largely unexplored.

Subsequently, in this article, we explicitly consider stress through the lens of morality. To facilitate this effort, we develop the concept of moral stress. We define moral stress as a psychological state (both cognitive and emotional) marked by anxiety and unrest due to an individual’s uncertainty about his or her ability to fulfill relevant moral obligations. We treat moral stress as a distinct construct to draw attention to a condition that is born of variables and shapes outcomes specifically relevant to the moral domain. Armed with this construct, we ground our arguments in identity theory and stakeholder theory to present a model of managerial moral stress that highlights its self–other relational antecedents and its personal consequences. In short, our model proposes that managerial moral stress springs from the ongoing uncertainty of trying to address (multiple) stakeholder claims within and across (multiple) role identities. The model allows us to develop several research propositions and to envision future scholarly and practical contributions of this approach.

Stress and Moral Stress: Definitions and Perspectives

Though definitions abound, stress is generally regarded to be an emotional state of nervousness, tension, and strain (Cooke and Rousseau 1984) resulting from failure to respond adequately to mental, emotional, or physical demands (Selye 1956). The cognitive appraisal model of stress suggests that stress connotes a relationship between a person and their environment that is identified “by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being” (see Lazarus and Folkman 1984, p. 19). From a physiological process perspective, the onset of stress triggers alarm, heightened awareness and the production of adrenaline and/or cortisol, followed by a period of resistance or coping, and then, if the cause of stress is unresolved, depletion or exhaustion (see General Adaptation Syndrome, Selye 1953, 1975). In an organizational context, researchers have recognized stress as a significant occupational hazard that can impair physical health, psychological well-being, and work performance (Kahn and Byosiere 1992; Sauter and Murphy 1995). A large body of research in this area follows the stressor-strain perspective, which argues that many different factors serve as stressors that can each create a strain on the individual and that this can result in a variety of (mostly negative) outcomes. For example, research on turnover suggests that exogenous factors such as organizational politics and bureaucracy are stressors that create a strain on the employee that can eventually translate into behaviors such as a decision to leave the organization (Podsakoff et al. 2007).

Though the literature on stress is quite well-developed, consideration of those aspects of stress that relate to the moral domain has been limited. Nursing researchers have perhaps been the most active in this regard. They have identified a construct, moral distress, as a “psychological disequilibrium and negative feeling state experienced when a person makes a moral decision but does not follow through by performing the moral behaviour indicated by that decision” (Wilkinson 1987/1988). Scholars have used the concept to consider the organizational and institutional barriers that prevent nurses from giving care to patients (Corley et al. 2001; Lützén et al. 2003). Though these scholars have recognized moral elements in an otherwise amoral body of work, this discussion has been limited to a very particular context (i.e., nursing) resulting from a very particular set of circumstances (i.e., not following through on a moral decision). As discussions of general stress represent much more than just this context and these conditions, we sought a broader consideration of the aspects of stress that relate to the moral domain.

Waters and Bird (1987) seemingly provided the first mention of moral stress in the management literature. Without explicitly providing a formal definition, they described moral stress as a condition of “moral milieu” caused by “the inherent abstractness of moral standards and the frequently conflicting nature of these standards” (p. 17). They noted that managerial moral stress can never be eliminated from work, but it can be reduced if organizational leaders will develop conditions that allow managers to explore moral issues in the workplace. More recently, scholars have pulled from Waters and Bird’s discussion an assumption of the moral disparity between what an organization needs or wants and what the manager can or wants to provide. For example, Wyld and Jones (1997) described moral stress as “an incongruence between organizational and individual perspectives on ethical matters” (p. 470), and VanSandt and Neck (2003) suggested that moral stress was one consequence of a discrepancy between organizational and individual morals. Pierce and Henry (2000) made similar limited arguments along these same lines.

Given these conditions, we recognize an opportunity to more fully develop and explore the concept of moral stress. This opportunity is the result of two general circumstances. First, discussions of stress have generally emphasized structural aspects of stress such as workload, time pressure, and role ambiguity (Katz and Kahn 1978, p. 206; Kristof 1996) to the exclusion of relational aspects. When relationships have been examined, they have been discussed only as interpersonal problems (e.g., Parkes 1985), interpersonal conflict (e.g., Motowidlo et al. 1986), or exchanges (Harris and Kacmar 2006). Since relationships are fundamental to morality, any moral implications of stress have generally been overlooked.

Second, an opportunity exists because existing discussions of moral stress have not been very thorough. For example, existing definitions of moral stress do not adequately describe the sensation of moral stress. More than just an external incongruence, moral stress represents a psychological condition that exists within the individual. As the literature on general stress has demonstrated, such a condition is both cognitive and emotional (Cooke and Rousseau 1984; Ganster 2005; Hunter and Thatcher 2007). Recent brain research suggests that moral decisions can be intertwined with the emotions that accompany them (Greene et al. 2001). Accordingly, we suggest that moral stress is characterized not just by thoughts of conflict or ambiguity, but also by feelings of anxiety and frustration. Moreover, this condition is individual and personal. In contrast to external views or even cultural definitions that refer to stress as a symbolic social construct (Barley and Knight 1992), moral stress is an inherently personal experience, deriving much of its influence from the unique situation of the individual decision-maker and his or her specific moral obligations.

In addition, previous discussions of managerial moral stress have characterized it merely as an incongruity of moral standards, which suggest that managers are unclear about what their moral obligations are. Indeed, the Hollywoodesque image of managerial moral stress is the employee who is pressured by the organization to act unethically and is thus unsure about what to do. Such a view purports that moral stress is the result of managers always having to choose between what is right and what is wrong. As Waters and Bird (1987) pointed out, though, moral stress may also result from the conflict of equally morally legitimate obligations, what Badaracco (1997, p. 5) and Kidder (1995, p. 105) have referred to as “right vs. right” decisions. In this view, the individual can experience stress because both alternatives are morally valid but mutually exclusive courses of action. Essentially, the manager would be experiencing Goodpaster’s (1991) stakeholder paradox at a personal level. Facing legitimate but contrary moral obligations, the individual would be particularly uncertain about whether he or she can actually act morally. In keeping with Barley and Knight’s (1992) discussion of stress, we suggest that uncertainty about one’s personal capacity to cope with such situations, to be a moral person, gives rise to apprehension and uneasiness and thus the individual would experience moral stress.

In light of these conditions, we define moral stress as a psychological state (both cognitive and emotional) marked by anxiety and unrest due to an individual’s uncertainty about his or her ability to fulfill relevant moral obligations. Importantly, moral stress is neutral in that it does not provide any sense of direction about how moral obligations should be fulfilled—moral stress emerges merely because the manager is uncertain that they can be fulfilled in any way. In this sense, moral stress is quite different from constructs such as guilt and shame. Guilt and shame have generally been viewed as negative self-conscious affective states caused by a perceived discrepancy between one’s actions and a moral standard (Tangney and Fischer 1995, p. 177), with guilt deriving from a negative evaluation of a specific behavior signaling possible corrective action and shame from a more general “global self” evaluation that extends beyond actions (Lewis 2000; Lindsay-Hartz 1984). Also, as Leary clarified, “people feel guilty when they think they did a bad thing but feel ashamed when they think they are a bad person” (2007, pp. 330–331). Thus, guilt and shame are experienced downstream, after decisions are made, and are dependent upon the directions of those decisions. In contrast, moral stress is more closely associated with the weight of merely having to make such decisions.

Importantly, our definition of moral stress reflects a condition (a psychological state) that is primarily rooted in interpersonal relationships. Subsequently, moral stress can be theoretically associated with both antecedents and consequences in the moral domain. Armed with our definition, we present a model of managerial moral stress in the following section.

A Model of Managerial Moral Stress

Our model of managerial moral stress is presented in Fig. 1. In the model, we assume that managerial moral obligations are manifest as claims made upon both organizational and managerial resources. Claims can take on many forms, but generally speaking, they are requests for a resource accessible to and, at least at a minimal extent, controlled by the individual to be deployed in a particular manner, typically for the requesters’ own benefit. Moreover, we assume that moral stress emerges as managers face multiple and often conflicting claims upon their available resources.
Fig. 1

A model of managerial moral stress. 1Model assumes a context where manager is facing at least two competing claims from stakeholders (see Fig. 2)

The moral domain is rooted in relationships (Etzioni 1988, pp. 4–5; Lyons 1994, p. 125). Accordingly, this model utilizes principles from both identity theory and stakeholder theory selected specifically to illustrate self–other relational (identity saliency referring to the self, stakeholder saliency referring to others) factors of moral stress relevant to, if not wholly representative of, the moral domain. In addition, the model proposes several behavioral consequences of moral stress, all of which have obvious morality-related elements. By taking this rather focused approach, we intend to demonstrate a path for more fully illuminating aspects of stress relevant to the moral domain.

Relational (Self–Other) Aspects

Per the previous discussion, managerial moral stress is fundamentally a result of claims being made upon the manager by others. We suggest that when an individual is presented with any claim, he/she is influenced by both ends of the self–other relationship. First, the individual is concerned with the self and must address issues about the capacity in which he or she has received the claim. Second, the individual is concerned with the other(s) and must address issues about the merits of the claim and of who is presenting it. We suggest that questions pertaining to the self are best captured by the concept of identity salience, and that questions pertaining to the merits of others’ claims are best understood as stakeholder saliency.

Identity Salience

Identity salience is a concept most closely associated with identity theory (Stryker and Serpe 1982). Stryker and Serpe argued that the self is multifaceted and reflects society, a “complexly differentiated but nevertheless organized” entity (p. 206). In the theory, the multiple components of the self are referred to as identities and more specifically as role identities (Hogg et al. 1995). Stryker (1980) further suggested that every individual has an identity for each role that he or she plays within society. The multiple role identities that the individual enacts provide meaning for the self because not only do they relate specific behavioral expectations for each role, but they also distinguish one role from another (e.g., manager and spouse) (Hogg et al. 1995).

A critical piece of any role identity is the prescriptions it includes for individual behavior. Indeed, Callero argued that “role identities, by definition, imply action” (1985, p. 205). Thus, much of what an individual does can be attributed to the prescriptions that accompany the identity the individual has adopted. Some prescriptions are largely amoral in nature (e.g., managers wear ties), but many are imbued with strong moral overtones (e.g., managers sign expense reports).

Identification is said to occur when the individual comes to define him or herself in terms of a particular perceived role identity (Mael and Ashforth 1992). Ashforth argued that the salience of this identity to the individual depends upon (1) the degree to which that identity is situation-relevant and (2) how strongly the individual identifies with the role identity (2001, p. 33). Thus, the stronger an individual’s identification with a specific role identity, the greater the likelihood his or her behavior will be shaped by that identify and the more likely the individual will be subject to and interested in adhering to the prescriptions of that identity (Ashforth and Mael 1989).

When claims are made upon a resource shared by two or more identities (e.g., the individual’s time), two aspects of identity salience become relevant to moral stress: the total amount of identity salience amongst the two identities and the variance of identity salience between the two identities. Identity salience refers to the extent to which an identity is meaningful to the individual. The more salient a given identity is to an individual, the more his/her self-concept is defined by, or reflected in terms of that specific identity (Hogg et al. 1995). Thus, total identity salience indicates the extent to which the moral obligations that accompany these identities collectively weigh upon the individual. Variance in salience between the identities then offers an indication of how the two identities compare to one another. If there is high variance, then the salience of one overshadows the other; if there is little variance, then their saliences are much more equal. When two or more identities are equally salient but have conflicting prescriptions, the appropriate and moral course of action can be entirely uncertain. As an example, consider a manager who is responsible for the emissions into his own community—he is torn by his obligations as a manager and as a citizen. Of course, if one or all of these identities are not salient, competing differences will be trivial, but when the individual deeply identifies with one or more of these identities, variance in their salience can matter a great deal. For this reason, we propose an interaction effect of the sum total of role identity salience and the variance between the saliency of any role identities involved.

Proposition 1a

Total role identity salience will be positively associated with moral stress.

Proposition 1b

Variance of role identity salience will be negatively associated with moral stress.

Proposition 1c

Total role identity salience will interact with variance of role identity salience such that higher levels of salience and lower levels of variance will be associated with the highest levels of moral stress.

Identity saliency thus provides a manager an accounting of his or her position in the moral relationships in which he/she participates. To understand the role of others in these relationships, we turn to the notion of stakeholder saliency.

Stakeholder Saliency

Stakeholder theory argues that an organization can be both profitable and moral if it satisfies the interests of its stakeholders (Donaldson and Preston 1995). Stakeholders are considered to be those groups and individuals who have a stake in the actions of the organization and include groups such as owners, customers, employees, suppliers, government, and society in general (Freeman and Reed 1983). Challenges arise, however, because stakeholders regularly place competing claims on the organization’s resources (Morris et al. 1995). Whether the resources are capital, effort, profits, or time, stakeholders can and do disagree about how or where each should be utilized. Mitchell et al. (1997) offered stakeholder saliency as a means of conceptualizing and measuring the validity of stakeholder claims. They defined stakeholder saliency as the extent to which a stakeholder is powerful and legitimate, and the claim is urgent, and suggested that stakeholder saliency helps managers to identify who and what really matters in any given situation. In contrast to what are more inherent, more enduring, and more encompassing obligations associated with identities, stakeholder saliency typically refers to particular obligations associated with very specific claims on resources. To illustrate, Agle et al. (1999) empirically tested some of these arguments by examining how CEO perceptions of stakeholders influenced critical organizational outcomes. They discovered that CEOs’ perceptions of stakeholder power, legitimacy, and urgency influenced CEO perceptions of stakeholder saliency. Although they found little evidence to support the claim that stakeholder saliency influences such outcomes as employee relations, profitability, community relations, or environmental stewardship, their study provided substantial evidence of the theoretical and methodological validity of the construct.

Historically, the stakeholder literature has focused on the firm as the unit of analysis and has portrayed the organization as the hub of a stakeholder network. Donaldson and Preston (1995), however, emphasized that “stakeholder theory is managerial in the broad sense of that term” in that it portrays managers as individuals who pay “simultaneous attention to the legitimate interests of all appropriate stakeholders, both in the establishment of organizational structures and general policies and in case-by-case decision making” (p. 67). To consider the manager as the unit of analysis, we must (1) view the manager as the hub of the stakeholder network, and (2) redefine the classic notion of stakeholder groups as those who have a stake in the actions of the individual manager as an agent of the organization. In this light, the principles of stakeholder saliency apply, but they are not oriented around the organization. Instead, they are oriented around the individual manager. We suggest that two aspects of stakeholder saliency, understood at this level of analysis, can help predict the amount of moral stress a manager incurs.

The first aspect is total stakeholder salience. A manager facing competing claims from stakeholders will be impacted by the total amount of stakeholder saliency involved—the more salient any given stakeholder is, the more influence they will have on the manager. This point notwithstanding, managers are concerned not only with the sum total of stakeholder saliency, but also with the relative difference in saliency between the stakeholders involved. This second aspect denotes the importance of variance in stakeholder salience. Little or no variance indicates that the stakeholders are essentially equals, which creates an uncertainty about whose interests it would be best to serve. Furthermore, we propose that these factors interact to affect moral stress. To illustrate, consider representatives of drug companies who often struggle with the conflict between suffering and/or terminal patients (customers) who desire immediate access to new drugs and regulatory agencies (governments) who need and require lengthy testing procedures. Customers and governments are both widely regarded as primary stakeholders (Freeman 1984, pp. 9, 13), and so total stakeholder saliency in this situation is quite high. Moreover, there is little variance in the saliency of the two groups, and thus it is not clear whose interests should be served. Such conditions generate a great deal of moral stress for those managers involved. As this situation illustrates, total stakeholder saliency and variance between the saliency of stakeholder claims interact to deeply impact levels of managerial moral stress.

Proposition 2a

Total stakeholder saliency will be positively associated with moral stress.

Proposition 2b

Variance of stakeholder saliency will be negatively associated with moral stress.

Proposition 2c

Total stakeholder saliency and variance of stakeholder saliency will interact such that higher levels of saliency and lower levels of variance will be associated with the highest levels of moral stress.

If we consider principles of identity theory and stakeholder theory in parallel, we can clearly recognize that managers hold multiple identities, and so while many individuals and groups may have a relationship with the manager as an agent of the organization, other individuals and groups will have relationships with the manager as a result of his or her other identities. Moreover, these other relationships will undoubtedly have moral parameters that could be at least as binding and as powerful as those associated with the agent identity. For example (see Fig. 2), as an agent of the organization, the manager’s stakeholders are customers, suppliers, and so on. As a parent, stakeholders include individuals and groups such as family members, friends, the community, the government, creditors, and others who have a similar stake in the actions of the individual in the context of that particular identity. Subsequently, not only is the individual concerned with his or her moral obligations to the organization's stakeholders, but also with his or her moral obligations to those who have a stake in every other identity the individual holds. Ultimately, the individual should be viewed more than just a hub of one stakeholder network, but instead as an axle supporting multiple stakeholder networks based on the various identities that he or she adopts.
Fig. 2

The origins of managerial moral stress: Relevant stakeholders for an individual with two representative identities

Using this perspective, the forces that lead to managerial moral stress become more apparent. Identity theory suggests that the manager will experience stress as prescriptions embedded in identities conflict (e.g., the polluting citizen), which would represent a horizontal stress or an inter-identity stress. Stakeholder theory argues that a manager will experience stress as stakeholder claims conflict, which is by contrast a vertical or inter-stakeholder stress (e.g., the customer-responsive yet government-conscious drug manager). Furthermore, considering these views simultaneously reveals a third path of moral stress as identities and stakeholder claims interact. This is exemplified in the classic case of work/family conflict where an organizational stakeholder, the owners of the firm, for example, demands the manager’s time to complete a job-related task while a personal stakeholder, perhaps a spouse or family member, makes a competing request for a personal event. In such a situation, the role identities are both highly salient and have little variance and the stakeholders are both highly salient and have little variance. These claims create a diagonal stress that cuts across both identities and stakeholders fostering a situation where the manager is uncertain about his or her ability to fulfill these claims. Thus, a situation like this ultimately results in the highest levels of moral stress. We present this relationship as Proposition 3.

Proposition 3

Total stakeholder saliency, variance of stakeholder saliency, total identity salience, and variance of identity salience will interact such that higher stakeholder saliency, lower variance of stakeholder saliency, higher identity salience, and lower variance of identity salience will be associated with the highest levels of moral stress.

Individual Aspect

Moral Attentiveness

The construct of moral attentiveness is a recent addition to the social psychological literature. It is defined as the “extent to which an individual chronically perceives and considers morality and moral elements in his or her experiences” (Reynolds 2008, p. 1028). Drawing from social cognitive theory on attention (Fiske and Taylor 1991), Reynolds argued that moral attentiveness involves: (1) a perceptual aspect in which information is automatically colored as it is encountered, and (2) a more intentional reflective aspect by which the individual uses morality to reflect on and examine past experiences. A chronically accessible framework of morality thus makes the individual attentive to the moral aspects of life in both perception and reflection.

Empirical study on moral attentiveness, though in its infancy, suggests that it has a substantial impact on individual moral decision-making and behavior. In a series of studies, Reynolds (2008) demonstrated that moral attentiveness is associated with greater moral awareness, which Rest (1986) argued is a necessary precursor to moral behavior. Reynolds proposed that moral attentiveness should therefore be associated with moral behaviors along this path, but he also empirically demonstrated that moral attentiveness is associated with general moral conduct along a more intuitive or automatic path. Thus, there is evidence to suggest that moral attentiveness has implications for the study of both intuitive and deliberate moral decision-making.

In this case, we suggest that moral attentiveness will play a moderating role in the relationships discussed previously. The central factor in our model of moral stress is stakeholder claims, and to this point in our discussion we have treated the moral qualities of these claims as somewhat of a constant. The central premise of moral attentiveness, however, is that individuals vary in the extent to which they pay attention to the moral aspects of experience. Thus, two managers may face identical stakeholder claims, but the pressure of those claims will vary to the extent that each individual perceives moral aspects to those claims. In other words, the moral attentiveness of the individual will moderate relationships of identity salience and moral stress and stakeholder salience and moral stress. Thus, we offer Proposition 4.

Proposition 4

Moral attentiveness will positively moderate the relationships between identity salience, stakeholder salience and moral stress (P1–P3).

Cognitive and Behavioral Consequences

Having identified antecedents of managerial moral stress from the moral domain, we now consider morality-related consequences of moral stress. The most notable point to be made about the consequences we discuss is that they are all negative. This happening does not reflect any agenda on our part. Rather, these results flow from existing empirical findings, many of which are found in the general stress literature. The stress literature theoretically and empirically distinguishes two forms of stressors that differentially influence the stress process and individual outcomes: challenge and hindrance stressors (Cavanaugh et al. 2000). Challenge stressors promote development and personal growth, and are related to generally preferable work outcomes in that they can motivate individuals to work harder and conquer demands. Examples of challenge stressors are time-sensitive deadlines and a high workload. In contrast, hindrance stressors negatively affect job attitudes, performance and other work outcomes because they cannot simply be overcome by increased effort. In such cases, any energy and personal resources expended to cope is wasted because these demands are inherently unable to be satisfied through increased effort (Boswell and Olson-Buchanan 2004; LePine et al. 2005). Examples of hindrance stressors include organizational politics and bureaucracy.

We suggest that managerial moral stress is closely associated with hindrance stressors. In many situations, managerial moral stress is tied to conflicting moral obligations that cannot be negotiated away or conquered in any meaningful way—their mutually exclusive nature is what generates the uncertainty associated with moral stress. Efforting and expending personal resources may do much toward meeting one or more of the moral obligations involved in the conflict, but no effort or resource can remove the conflict. Given this, we expect managerial moral stress to be associated with outcomes similar to those associated with hindrance stressors, and research shows that hindrance stressors have a negative influence on a wide variety of physical, psychological, attitudinal and behavioral variables (cf. LePine et al. 2005). In this next section we specifically consider behavioral variables related to the moral domain.

Job and Identity Performance

Performance is a very broad concept that refers to a wide range of behaviors. In the present context, these behaviors collectively represent the completion or fulfillment of moral obligations. Identity performance refers to an individual’s level of competence while functioning in a given identity and is largely based on (positive or negative) social evaluations of the individual by others (Klein et al. 2007; Stryker 1980). Job performance describes performance of specifically work-related duties. Research in a variety of literatures indicates that general stress leads to behaviors such as hesitancy, lower confidence, indecisiveness, and external signs of ambivalence and/or negative affect, which contribute to decreased job performance (Butler and Skattebo 2004; Fisher 2001; Netemeyer et al. 2005). Given those findings, we expect a similar effect on job performance from moral stress. Furthermore, we recognize that moral stress touches multiple identities, and therefore we expect that moral stress will similarly affect performance in all of the manager’s identities. To the extent that the manager experiences moral stress, the capacity to effectively complete the duties and responsibilities associated with each of his or her identities will diminish. Thus, not only will job performance decrease, but also performance related to all relevant identities will decrease.

Moral Awareness

We further suggest that managerial moral stress will result in decreased moral awareness. Rest (1986) identified four stages of moral decision-making. Moral awareness was the first stage, a stage defined by Reynolds (2006a) as an individual’s “determination that a situation contains moral content and can legitimately be considered from a moral point of view.” Research has demonstrated that moral awareness is shaped by individual-level factors, characteristics of the moral issue (i.e., moral intensity; Jones 1991) and an interaction of the two (Butterfield et al. 2000; Reynolds 2006a). Previous research suggests that stress can have a narrowing effect on individual decision-making such that the individual under stress becomes less comprehensive in his/her decision-making and relies more heavily on more routinized and familiar mental models (Weick 1993; Werhane 1999, pp. 11–13). With regard to the moral decision-making process, we suggest that moral stress will result in the individual regressing to more simplistic mental models that lead to less creativity in the recognizing of moral issues, even for those whose natural tendency is to be highly attentive to such issues. Thus, moral stress will impact moral awareness by decreasing the individual’s ability to recognize the moral aspects of the situation and thereby reducing the interactive effect Reynolds identified.

Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning is the second of Rest’s (1986) decision-making stages. It is the process of determining what is moral and immoral in any given decision. We suggest that moral stress will negatively impact moral reasoning. Research suggests that conditions associated with stress have predictable influences on general decision-making. Most notably, stress-causing threats lead to a cognitive rigidity or a general narrowing of cognitive processes (Fiedler 1993; Staw et al. 1981), also leading to decreased sustained attention capacity (Hancock and Warm 1989). The individual’s attention falls on a reduced number of perspectives while perceptual accuracy and the ability to focus on relevant environmental information diminishes (Smart and Vertinsky 1977). From a moral perspective, this cognitive rigidity greatly diminishes the individual’s capacity to exercise moral imagination (Johnson 1993, p. 2). The individual is less likely to consider alternative moral viewpoints, to identify creative solutions to existing dilemmas, and to recognize moral elements in new issues (Werhane 1999, p. 13). Furthermore, research on ego depletion has demonstrated that coping with stress depletes intrapersonal resources for self-regulation and task persistence (Muraven et al. 1998). Thus, prolonged or poignant levels of moral stress could weaken the individual’s resolve and thus lead him/her to an ambivalent surrendering (i.e., a “whatever” posture) or perhaps even to “give up” on moral reasoning. This logic reflects the exhaustion/depletion phases of the General Adaptation Syndrome of stress described above (Selye 1975). Regardless of the degree of the depletion, the individual would ultimately resort to more simplistic and basic moral decision-making rationale, which often means insufficient or inferior rationale (Kohlberg 1984, p. 24). For all these reasons, we propose that moral stress will have a negative impact on moral reasoning.

Moral Behavior

Finally, we expect that managerial moral stress will be associated with immoral behavior. This is a natural conclusion in at least two respects. First, according to Rest (1986, pp. 18–20), moral awareness and moral reasoning are important steps that precede moral behavior. According to this cognitive developmental model, if moral awareness does not occur or if moral reasoning is poor, immoral behavior will follow. As we have provided multiple reasons why moral awareness will decrease and moral reasoning will be diminished, immoral behavior is a natural consequence (a final step in a mediated model). Second, we believe that moral stress will lead directly to immoral behavior via a more reactionary or automatic pathway. Research suggests that immoral behavior is often the result of short but powerful emotional impulses (Haidt 2001) or a lack of inhibitive capabilities (Macmillan 2000)—the individual simply “feels” pushed in a particular direction and acts accordingly. Per our definition, moral stress is a psychological state with emotional components. Thus, if the individual is overwhelmed with moral stress, the individual will be more likely to act impulsively and perhaps even recklessly. Under such circumstances, we expect moral stress to engender a sense of urgency and/or desperation. The individual is in a sense compelled to act, which results in individual behaviors that are selfish, harmful, and/or shortsighted. In this light, we argue that moral stress will (also) be directly associated with immoral behavior. Granted, moral stress often emerges in “right vs. right” situations where either alternative could be viewed as a moral course of action. In practice, however, we believe that one identity or one stakeholder is often slightly more salient than another, which renders one alternative slightly more “right” than another. Subsequently, we believe that moral stress will be associated with immoral behavior even in those situations.

Proposition 5

Moral stress will be associated with poor job performance, poor identity performance, decreased moral awareness, poor moral reasoning, and immoral behavior.



In this article, we have highlighted aspects of stress relevant to the moral domain by developing a formal definition and model of managerial moral stress. A critical contribution of the definition is its acknowledgment of a reality widely accepted in the business ethics domain: that some if not the majority of the most difficult decisions that managers face are not between what is moral and what is immoral, but rather between relatively comparable moral alternatives. Furthermore, by recognizing the cognitive and emotional aspects of moral stress, this definition more effectively captures the complete experience that moral stress entails.

The model of managerial moral stress we propose reveals a multi-dimensionality to identity theory and stakeholder theory that has previously been unexplored. To date, identity theorists have paid little attention to the moral implications of the effects of conflicting intra-identity obligations. Similarly, with few exceptions (e.g., Reynolds et al. 2006), stakeholder theorists have yet to thoroughly consider the individual as a unit of analysis, and subsequently they have yet to explore the unique kinds of stakeholder obligations that a single manager might have compared to an organization. While our main objective has been to identify the causes and consequences of managerial moral stress, we believe that the insights gained from viewing the individual as an axle with multiple stakeholder networks revolving around the different identities that he or she plays extends well beyond the topic of moral stress. This view could provide a fresh perspective on such important topics as moral decision-making, ethical leadership, organizational culture, career management, and more. To the extent that researchers can apply the principles of this perspective to other topics, we believe numerous opportunities exist for enhancing our understanding of management.

The model also creates several opportunities for empirical study. While moral stress is a phrase loosely referenced in both common and academic vernaculars, the field has yet to develop any empirical tools for examining this phenomenon. Our definition provides the opportunity for operationalizing the construct, and with the development of a valid scale the nature of moral stress can be more fully explored. This effort could also explore the degree to which moral stress is conceptually and empirically distinct from existing constructs such as guilt and shame (see Lewis 2000; Tracy and Robbins 2006). Moving beyond the model’s specific suggestions, researchers can explore other relationships involving managerial moral stress. For example, while the model accounts for the dynamic nature of ongoing moral obligations, it does not expressly account for elements of the environment or of the moral issue. It may be that specific environmental factors (e.g., industry, company size) or dimensions of the specific issue in question (e.g., extent of harm) influence moral stress on a more finite basis. Similarly, it may be that moral stress contributes to factors associated with blatantly ethical or unethical behaviors. For example, it seems clear to us that moral stress could certainly be a factor that contributes to ego depletion (Baumeister et al. 2005)—if someone is under a great deal of pressure from competing moral obligations, they may have less capacity to resist other kinds of moral temptations that come along. With a theoretical foundation established, these kinds of empirical investigations are now warranted.

In addition, the model takes a definitively individual view of moral stress. Such a view is consistent with stereotypes and anecdotal expressions of moral stress—individuals struggling alone with the moral challenges heaped upon them. Nevertheless, Waters and Bird (1987) argued that there is an irony to the phenomenon in that while individuals believe they suffer alone, moral stress contains shared elements. In this same vein, Barley and Knight (1992) argued that stress is a symbolic manifestation of a shared contradiction. While we have expressly defined moral stress as an individual construct and believe that exploration of the concept must begin at that level, we recognize the possibility that moral stress might have group, organizational, or even societal forms that exert a unique influence and may in turn affect the individual. To the extent that researchers can explore multi-level conceptualizations of moral stress, opportunities exist for better understanding the managerial moral experience.

We recognize that our model does not discuss or acknowledge one of the most widely recognized behavioral consequences of general stress. Most theories of stress and previous conceptions of moral stress point toward consequences such as absenteeism and turnover—attempts to manage challenges by removing oneself from the stressful situation (Hemingway and Smith 1999; Schuler 1980). We have argued, though, that moral stress is based on a concern about acting morally and is heightened by moral attentiveness, and removing oneself from a morally charged situation could easily be considered an absolution of responsibility, which is generally contrary to most conceptions of moral behavior (e.g., Kant 1785/1994). For this reason, a counter-intuitive effect results in that the manager is motivated to stay in the situation by a desire to act and to be moral, but this desire only contributes to the overall condition. Given this unique effect, we are inclined to believe that moral stress does indeed represent a unique psychological condition that exists independent of general stress. Nonetheless, we recognize that ultimately this is an empirical question, and we invite future research to explore its significance.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, this research represents the first explicit attempt to view stress through the lens of morality. Though it is clear that the factors that contribute to general stress have moral elements, we suggest that the field simply has not considered these elements thoroughly enough. The literature on stress is well developed, but, for all of its moral implications, it has not been tethered to any literatures on moral topics. A specific and separate construct of moral stress points attention to those antecedents and consequences that contain uniquely moral elements, and we hope scholars view this work as a basis for additional conversations.


We believe that the descriptive implications of this model for managers are noteworthy. The model gives validity to managerial moral angst and documents it as a legitimate and perhaps pervasive experience. In describing moral stress, the model provides a greater understanding of what moral stress is, how it emerges, and to what it leads. Its prescriptive abilities, though, are less obvious. It is unclear whether the model provides levers for reducing moral stress. Is it within a manager’s capacity to change stakeholder claims, to reduce the importance ascribed to these role identities, or to reduce his or her moral attentiveness? The paradox of moral stress is that it exists precisely because the individual is driven to do the right thing. For the individual with such a desire, moral stress may simply be an unavoidable by-product of trying to be both a moral manager and a moral person (Treviño et al. 2000). Subsequently, the challenge seems to lie in identifying the most effective ways of coping with moral stress as it arises. To this end, coping activities such as ethical search (Reynolds 2006b), ethical discussions (Bird and Waters 1989), and ethical compromise (Badaracco 2001) seem indispensable.

Despite the apparent absence of individual-level levers in our model, organizations can certainly react to evidence and incidences of moral stress. In the manager-as-hub view of stakeholder management, organizational leaders are themselves stakeholders of the individual managers within their organizations. To the extent that leaders can recognize the part that they personally play in placing claims on their own managers as agents of the organization and as individuals operating in a society, they can remedially affect the extent to which individual managers experience moral stress. More importantly, they can monitor satisfaction and performance, and to a lesser extent moral reasoning and moral behavior, to avoid detrimental levels of moral stress. At a minimum, organizations can be more direct and open about their expectations of managers as agents of the organizations and as individuals, and be more open to the contradictions organizational life creates. In doing so, they strengthen managers’ beliefs about their own abilities to act morally.


The attention that ethical scandals receive in the media reflects two points. First, the spotlight suggests that ethical scandals are important to society—not only are they naturally intriguing, but also they might have significant consequences for all of those nearby. Second, it suggests that these offenses are not necessarily commonplace, and thus they are deserving of notice. Despite this final point, our field often spends a great deal of theoretical and empirical energy exploring the nuances of these kinds of spectacular and oftentimes singular events. What may be much more common and prevalent from a managerial perspective, however, is the day-to-day anxiety and unrest of striving to do what is right and to be a moral person even though such outcomes seem and may be unachievable. To the extent that the phenomenon of moral stress represents an individual manifestation of the stakeholder paradox, it touches every manager’s every activity. For these reasons, we believe that this area represents an interesting and valuable area of study that deserves much greater attention.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011