Moral Emotions Toward Others at Work and Implications for Employee Behavior: a Qualitative Analysis Using Critical Incidents

Abstract

We propose a theoretical framework for and, via critical incidents, inductively investigate (a) the situations that trigger moral emotions toward others at work and (b) worker responses to these situations. Critical incidents were collected from a heterogeneous sample of 423 workers. Participants described an incident that caused each of four moral emotions (gratitude, anger, admiration, and contempt) and their response. Incidents and responses were coded, and frequencies, differences across the moral emotions, and associations between incidents and responses were analyzed. Several morally relevant situations at work were found to trigger the moral emotions. Participants responded in ways that had implications for their performance and their own well-being. The incidents largely align with moral foundations theory (Haidt and Graham in Social Justice Research, 20, 98–116, 2007). Responses also show evidence for social exchange, social learning, and rational expectancy-based processes and behavior. The incidents specify several practices for managers and organizations to encourage and avoid. This was the first qualitative study of moral emotions at work and one of the few workplace studies to examine these emotions empirically. Several understudied factors and behavioral responses emerged.

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Correspondence to Michael T. Ford.

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John P. Agosta and Jingyi Huang contributed equally to the paper.

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Ford, M.T., Agosta, J.P., Huang, J. et al. Moral Emotions Toward Others at Work and Implications for Employee Behavior: a Qualitative Analysis Using Critical Incidents. J Bus Psychol 33, 155–180 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-016-9484-3

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Keywords

  • Morality
  • Discrete emotions
  • Anger
  • Gratitude
  • Admiration
  • Contempt