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The Emotion-Evoked Collective Corruption Model: The Role of Emotion in the Spread of Corruption Within Organizations

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Abstract

We draw from research on emotions and moral reasoning to develop a process model of collective corruption that centers on the role of moral emotions in the spread of corruption within organizations. Our focus on a well-intentioned and deliberative path to corruption is a departure from previous theory, which has focused on mindless and ill-intentioned paths. In our model, moral emotions play a critical role in both the initial recruitment of a target individual (the direct process), as well as the spread of corruption to a broader group of nontargeted individuals through emotional contagion (the vicarious process). For both processes we explain how self-directed moral emotions (guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride) facilitate the spread of corruption and how other-directed moral emotions (anger and contempt) do not. We conclude by discussing the implications of our theory and directions for future research.
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The Emotion-Evoked Collective Corruption Model:
The Role of Emotion in the Spread of Corruption within
Organizations
Kristin Smith-Crowe
University of Utah
Danielle E. Warren
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
We draw from research on emotions and moral reasoning to develop a process
model of collective corruption that centers on the role of moral emotions in the
spread of corruption within organizations. Our focus on a well-intentioned and
deliberative path to corruption is a departure from previous theory which has
focused on mindless and ill-intentioned paths. In our model, moral emotions play a
critical role in both the initial recruitment of a target individual (the direct process),
as well as the spread of corruption to a broader group of non-targeted individuals
through emotional contagion (the vicarious process). For both processes we explain
how self-directed moral emotions (guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride) facilitate
the spread of corruption, and how other-directed moral emotions (anger and
contempt) do not. We conclude by discussing the implications of our theory and
directions for future research.
Smith-Crowe, K., & Warren, D. E. (2014). The emotion-evoked collective
corruption model: The role of emotion in the spread of corruption within
organizations. Organization Science, 25, 1154-1171.
Acknowledgments: We are grateful to Sigal Barsade, Art Brief, Dolly Chugh, Celia
Moore, Don Palmer, and Gerardo Okhuysen for their helpful comments on earlier
drafts of this paper and to Tracy Rank-Christman for her research assistance. We
are also grateful to senior editor Blake Ashforth and three anonymous reviewers for
their valuable input during the review process.
Wrongdoing in organizations is prevalent, costly, and ongoing, with almost half of
American employees recently surveyed having observed misconduct in their
organizations (Ethics Resource Center 2012). Collective corruption, defined as
coordinated wrongdoing that organizational members carry out on behalf of the
organization (Pinto et al. 2008), is an especially problematic sub-category of wrongdoing
that has been associated with numerous high-profile scandals. Whereas the broader
literature on wrongdoing focuses largely on the question of why individuals engage in
wrongdoing (e.g., Jones 1991; Sonenshein 2007; Treviño 1986; Reynolds 2006a, 2006b),
a key question in the collective corruption literature is how does wrongdoing spread
across individuals such that they come to work together to do wrong in the name of the
organization? As Ashforth et al. (2008, p. 671) put it, “The concept of corruption reflects
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not just the corrupt behavior of any single individual…but also the dangerous, viruslike
‘infection’ of a group, organization, or industry.” Yet Greve and colleagues (2010)
concluded that relatively little research addresses the problem of the spread of corruption
within organizations. Moore’s (2009, p. 36-37) description of this literature is similar:
“…corruption has less often been studied as a process, even though the true puzzles we
need to unravel in order to understand (and undo) corruption are about the processes that
deliver corruption, rather than the end result of those processes….”
Further, existing process theories have focused on how corruption “…proliferates
throughout an organization largely through processes that can be considered mindless…”,
or of a mechanical character (Greve et al. 2010, p. 76), and on how corruption may be
motivated by self-interest (Palmer 2008). In contrast, we are interested in how well-
intentioned, thoughtful organizational members might come to engage in collective
corruption. Based on the increasing convergence of evidence across disciplines
suggesting that moral reasoning is inextricably linked to emotional capacity (e.g., Greene
et al. 2001, Greene and Haidt 2002, Haidt 2001, Sonenshein 2007, 2009, Warren and
Smith-Crowe 2008), we focus on the central role that moral emotions can play in
propagating corruption. We argue that emotion can play an important role in recruiting an
individual into participating in corruption, and that emotional contagion can draw people
in beyond those directly targeted for recruitment. In this way, emotional contagion can
help to explain the rapid spread of corruption.
In what follows, we summarize existing theory on how collective corruption
spreads in organizations. Next, we develop theory for an “emotion-evoked” pathway by
which it can spread. Because the role of moral emotions in moral reasoning is central to
our argument, we begin by discussing the nature and function of moral emotions and
their susceptibility to influence in organizational contexts. Then, we present our emotion-
evoked corruption model. We start with an instance of an individual engaging in behavior
that in a broader context would be considered moral, but in the context of a particular
organization is considered immoral because it interferes with the organization’s corrupt
practices. We argue that when these individuals are the targets of criticism for their
transgressions(as defined by the organization), they are likely to respond emotionally
with self-directed emotions (guilt, shame, or embarrassment) or other-directed emotions
(anger or contempt). These emotions may be “caught” by observers. We further argue
that, depending on the type of emotion elicited, the content and outcomes of their ensuing
moral reasoning will differ such that inwardly directed emotions are likely to promote the
spread of collective corruption, and outwardly directed emotions are not.
Existing Research on the Spread of Collective Corruption
Collective corruption is typically regarded as a top-down process whereby leaders either
directly or implicitly encourage their subordinates to engage in wrongdoing (Ashforth
and Anand 2003, Brown et al. 2005). The identified reasons for subordinates’ compliance
entail a lack of awareness of doing wrong, mindlessness, habituation, and incentives (e.g.,
Ashforth and Anand 2003, Butterfield et al. 2000, Greve et al. 2010, Moore 2009, Palmer
2008, Reynolds 2006a). For example, reward structures may both incentivize and
legitimize corrupt behaviors (Ashforth and Anand 2003). In other cases, subordinates
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may see the directives and desires of their leaders as naturally legitimate, and thus
beyond reproach (Brief et al. 2001, Strudler and Warren 2001). Further, Ashforth and
Anand (2003) described a number of rationalizations symptomatic of moral
disengagement (Bandura et al. 1996, Moore 2008; cf. Sykes and Matza 1957). Language
can be an important part of the disengagement process: neutral language functions to
sanitize, making the detection of immorality difficult (Ashforth and Humphrey 1995,
Ashforth and Kreiner 2002, Milgram 1969, Tenbrunsel and Messick 2004).
In past research, corruption has been posited to spread via institutionalization (Brief
et al. 2001, Moore 2009); Ashforth and Anand (2003) argued that institutionalization
begins with an initial corrupt behavior, which subsequently becomes part of an
organization’s structure and process. For instance, behavior that is rewarded eventually
becomes a matter of routine and is perpetuated through socialization. Likewise,
newcomers may be eased into wrongdoing incrementally, thereby masking their descent
into corruption; they also may experience an escalation of commitment toward
wrongdoing (see also Brief et al. 2001). Importantly, existing theory on collective
corruption focuses on the de-emphasis of the moral attributes of a situation,
reinterpretation of the situation for the newcomer, or inducement of corruption through
rewards. However, given recent findings across fields, it is important to consider both
cognition and emotion as important factors in collective corruption. Furthermore, our
theory explains how employees can fall prey to corruption even while believing they are
doing what is morally right. In short, we present our approach as not only a possible
avenue to collective corruption, but also as a complementary one that may improve the
efficacy of existing process theories on collective corruption.
The Role of Moral Emotions in the Spread of Collective
Corruption
Here we draw on research across disciplinary boundaries to develop a process model of
the spread of corruption. We argue that organizational members who identify with their
organization are likely to feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment when rebuked for actions
that are inconsistent with ongoing corrupt practices. Such emotional reactions are likely
to lead to a greater alignment between individuals’ thinking and feeling (i.e., moral
judgments and affective residue outcomes of the moral reasoning process) and these
corrupt practices, in turn making future participation in collective corruption more likely.
Praise for subsequent participation may lead to a sense of pride, reinforcing thinking and
feeling aligned with corrupt practices. In contrast, we argue that individuals who do not
particularly identify with their organization are likely to feel anger and contempt when
reprimanded for the same actions. These emotions are not likely to lead to individuals’
thinking and feeling aligning with corrupt practices, and thus are not likely to lead to the
spread of corruption. Observers who “catch” these emotions are likely to respond
similarly to individuals directly targeted for rebuke. Below we detail each step of the
emotion-evoked corruption model. We begin with a fine-grained analysis of moral
emotions. Next, we apply this knowledge, explaining how these emotions can act to
promote collective corruption.
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Moral Emotions and Moral Reasoning
A preponderance of evidence suggests an overlapping of our moral and emotional lives
(for reviews see Greene and Haidt 2002, Moll et al. 2005, 2008, Salvador and Folger
2009). Much of this evidence comes in one of two forms: evidence of a correspondence
between deficits in emotional and moral capacities (Krajbich et al. 2009, Moll and de
Oliveira-Souza 2007, van den Bos and Gurogulu 2009), and evidence of morally relevant
stimuli evoking activity in the emotion centers of normal brains (Heekeren et al. 2003,
Moll et al. 2008). As an example of the former type of evidence, in case studies of two
adults who suffered frontal lobe damage before the age of 16 months, researchers found
that their lack of emotional capacity corresponded to their lack of moral capacity
(Anderson et al. 1999). Described as suffering from a syndrome resembling psychopathy,
the patients exhibited behavior like lying and stealing, as well as neglectful parenting
all without any evidence of guilt or empathy. The second type of evidence (activation in
normal brains as a response to moral stimuli) also demonstrates a connection between
morality and emotion. For instance, Moll and his colleagues (2002, cf. Robertson et al.
2007) found that moral judgment entailed activation of brain areas associated with
emotion (the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus).
Given this evidence, we contend that an understanding of micro-processes entailing
emotion and moral reasoning can facilitate our understanding of collective corruption.
Here we discuss research on the nature of moral emotions and their role in the moral
reasoning process, which will serve as the foundation for our subsequent arguments.
Nature of moral emotions. Emotions are discrete, have objects, entail both feeling
and thinking, and can occur rapidly (e.g., Ashforth and Humphrey 1995, Baumeister et al.
2007, Elfenbein 2007, Grandey 2008, Keltner and Lerner 2010, Prinz 2004, Schacter and
Singer 1962). Lindquist and Barrett (2008) described emotions as physiological states
that are imbued with meaning (cf. Schacter and Singer 1962). Emotion is a way for us to
see the value of things (de Sousa 1987), including whether things are moral or immoral,
and whether we or others are responsible for them (Barrett et al. 2007). Along the same
lines, Elfenbein (2007) argued that the experience of emotion entails a sense-making
process that incorporates input from the social environment. Moral emotions, as a
subcategory of emotions, claim these general characteristics with the difference that their
objects are morally relevant. They are concerned with social relations, “…real, imagined,
anticipated, or remembered encounters with people” (Leary 2000, p. 331), particularly
with violations of the social (and hence, moral) order (Rozin et al. 1999, Baumeister et al.
1994). Here we consider self- and other-directed moral emotions that are positively and
negatively valenced.
Self-directed moral emotions include guilt, shame, and embarrassment and indicate
to those experiencing them that they have done wrong (Haidt 2003, Lewis 1992, Rozin et
al. 1999, Tracy and Robins 2004, Warren and Smith-Crowe 2008). Guilt is behavior-
specific (i.e., one feels guilty about a specific behavior rather than evaluating the global
self negatively), while shame is elicited by transgressions for which the global self is
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blamed (Baumeister et al. 1994, Tangney 1990, 1991, Tangney et al. 2007, Tracy and
Robins 2006); both are in response to violations of one’s own standards. Embarrassment,
in contrast, occurs in response to more inadvertent moral lapses (Keltner and Buswell
1997, Parrott and Smith 1991, Warren and Smith-Crowe 2008). These emotions tend to
result in prosocial actions like appeasement behaviors, which involve complying with the
desires and directives of those who trigger or witness the experience of a moral emotion
(Apsler 1975, Baumeister et al. 1994, 1995, Haidt 2003, Keltner and Buswell 1997,
Levin and Arluke 1982, Tangney et al. 2007). Different from research on guilt and
embarrassment, previous research suggests that shame may lead to withdrawal rather than
appeasement (Tangney et al. 2007), yet more recent research distinguishes different
dimensions of shame and finds that some dimensions are associated with positive
responses (Cohen et al. 2011, de Hooge et al. 2010, Gausel et al. 2012). Interestingly,
prosocial reactions to shame, guilt, and embarrassment may not be moral. Gino and
Pierce (2009) demonstrated that when participants felt guilty due to wealth-based
inequity, they were more likely to engage in “dishonest helping” behavior (i.e., over-
reporting the productivity of another student in a lab task so the other student would
receive more compensation).
Apart from guilt, shame, and embarrassment is the self-directed but positively
valenced emotion of pride. Pride is “…generated by appraisals that one is responsible for
a socially valued outcome …” (Mascolo and Fischer 1995, p. 66). Similarly, Tracy and
Robins (2007, p. 507) termed authentic pride that which “…is typically based on specific
accomplishments and is likely accompanied by genuine feelings of self-worth.” Tangney
et al. (2007) argued that since pride is based on conforming to social standards of worth
or merit, it likely serves a motivational function: promoting behavior deemed ethical and
inhibiting behavior deemed unethical.
Other-directed moral emotions include anger and contempt, and indicate that others
have done wrong (Melwani and Barsade 2011, Rozin et al. 1999). Anger results from
threats to the self (Hutcherson and Gross 2011) and violations of autonomy (Gutierrez
and Giner-Sorolla 2007, Rozin et al. 1999), particularly those that are intentional (Russell
and Giner-Sorolla 2011a). Contempt results from others’ incompetence (Hutcherson and
Gross 2011) and violations of community (Melwani and Barsade 2011, Rozin et al.
1999). For instance, target individuals might become angry if they sense that others are
interfering with their right to manage their own work or are threatening or attacking
them; alternatively, they might feel contempt if they sense that others are disrespecting
them or are incompetent. While anger is tied to aggression and attempts to change the
target of the anger, contempt is tied with distancing oneself from the target of the
contempt (e.g., Fischer and Roseman 2007).
Function of moral emotions. Moral emotions have two important functions in the
process of moral reasoning: (1) the moral reasoning process can begin with a moral
emotion, and (2) moral emotions can facilitate ongoing reasoning by distinguishing
between ethical and unethical options. Leary (2000) argued that in an evolutionary sense,
the survival of human beings has depended on association and cooperation, and that one
aspect of our emotional capacity is to detect whether other people accept or devalue us.
These emotions then facilitate cognitive processing (Baumeister et al. 2007).
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Experiencing emotions like embarrassment and shame indicate to us that there is a
problem, that we are being devalued by others (Leary 2000), prompting our reflection on
what we may have done wrong (see also Ashforth and Saks 2002). For instance,
Baumeister and his colleagues (1995) found that guilt prompted learning about right and
wrong. Conversely, experiencing pride indicates that we have behaved admirably and
may prompt us to engage in moral reasoning as we reflect on the good we have done.
Further, experiencing anger or contempt indicates that others have done wrong to us,
prompting reflection on othersmisdeeds. Indeed, Russell and Giner-Sorolla (2011b)
found that it is relatively easy for individuals to provide reasons to justify their anger.
Once moral reasoning is initiated, moral emotions continue to play a critical role by
directing our attention to relevant factors and options, and helping us to evaluate them
(e.g., Roberts et al. 2005). Baumeister et al. (2007, cf. Damasio 1994) explained this
process in terms of affective residue,which they argued is a learned association from
our past mistakes and successes, or those of others in the case of social learning. That is,
negative self-directed emotions become linked to past mistakes and positive self-directed
emotions become linked to past successes (see also Tangney et al. 2007) so that when the
mistakes or successes are recalled, the associated affect is also recalled. Likewise, other-
directed emotions become linked to others’ transgressions.
Importantly, when we find ourselves deliberating over an issue, moral emotions
help us to distinguish moral from immoral options. For instance, using guilt as an
example, Baumeister et al. (2007, p. 173) theorized that having done something in the
past that made one feel guilty, one will likely feel a “twinge of guilty affect” (i.e.,
affective residue) when considering engaging in that same behavior again. Because we
typically want to pursue positive and avoid negative experiences, twinges of guilt help us
quickly eliminate presumably bad options (cf. Cohen et al. 2012). In this case guilt serves
as an “interrupt mechanism” that can stop or redirect behavior (Baumeister et al. 1995, p.
188), what Warren and Smith-Crowe (2008) called an internal sanction. Similarly, Fourie
et al. (2011) found that experimentally induced guilt was associated with self-reported
behavioral inhibition sensitivity and they argued that as such, guilt serves as a
punishment cue. In contrast, other-directed negative emotions serve the function of
indicating that it is others who are exhibiting problematic behavior. Such associated
affect reduces the likelihood of our adopting the behavior of others. Pride similarly
reduces the likelihood of a change in behavior because it reinforces an existing course of
action. Consistent with our reasoning, the appraisal tendency theory of emotion says that
emotions influence individuals’ judgment and decision-making because they promote
judgments and decisions that are consistent with the emotions being experienced (Keltner
and Lerner 2010).
Thus, it is the connection between moral emotion and moral reasoning that defines
the influence of moral emotion on behavior. Anger, contempt, and pride are not likely to
motivate a change in behavior; guilt, shame, and embarrassment are. Though we do not
assume that we always choose to act on what we believe to be morally right (cf.
Tenbrunsel and Smith-Crowe 2008), moral judgment has been demonstrated to correlate
with ethical intention and behavior (for reviews see O’Fallon and Butterfield 2005,
Treviño et al. 2006), and emotion has been demonstrated to motivate behavior (e.g., de
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Quervain et al. 2004). In other words, to say that moral emotions are part of the moral
reasoning process is to say that moral emotions influence behavior.
Moral emotions in an organizational context. An implication of the discussion
thus far is that our emotional repertoire continuously develops as new associations arise
between emotions and the events in our lives (e.g., de Sousa 1987). In other words, our
capacity for emotion develops in a social context; as such, emotions are social
phenomena (see also Ashforth and Humphrey 1995, Ashforth and Kreiner 2002,
Solomon 2004, Vasquez et al. 2001). Below, in laying out our theoretical model we argue
that moral emotions can be systematically triggered in an organizational context such that
behaviors may become associated with emotions indicating to the person experiencing
them that he or she has done something wrong (guilt, shame, and embarrassment), that
someone else has done something wrong (anger and contempt), or that he or she has done
something right (pride).
Organizations offer such opportunities for moral learning because they vary on moral
dimensions (Schminke et al. 2005, Victor and Cullen 1988), and their norms may or may
not align with society values (Palmer 2012, Warren 2003). Furthermore, many employees
encounter new or novel ethical dilemmas within organizations that are not regularly
experienced in their non-work lives (e.g., hiring, firing, and formal negotiations). In these
cases, they may lack prior opportunities to consider relevant societal values or build
repertoires for solving such problems (see Margolis and Molinsky 2008). As such, moral
ambiguity is likely to arise, referring broadly to individuals being morally aware1, but
being confused about what is right and wrong (Waters and Bird 1987). For instance,
Warren and Smith-Crowe (2008) argued that while individuals’ commitment to moral
rules is fairly stable, they must figure out whether and how moral rules apply to different
situations (see also Margolis and Phillips 1999). As Sykes and Matza (1957, p. 666) put
it, we do not live by categorical imperatives, “rather, values or norms appear as qualified
guides for action, limited in their applicability in terms of time, place, persons, and social
circumstances.”
In previous research, moral ambiguity has been conceptualized as stemming from
conflicting moral roles or obligations, differing normative prescriptions, unclear
situational cues, novel situations, and individual differences (De Cremer et al. 2008,
Newton 1986, Peter and Liaschenko 2004, Sonenshein 2007, 2009, Warren and Smith-
Crowe 2008, Waters and Bird 1987, Wojciszke 1994, Wiltermuth and Flynn 2013). For
example, one of Waters and Bird’s (1987) interviewees explained, “An outside recruiter
approached me looking for a person to fill a position and it would be a potentially great
assignment for one of my people. But I don’t want to lose her. What do I do?” (p. 17).
The moral ambiguity arises because the manager’s obligation to his organization conflicts
with his obligation to his employee. Another interviewee struggled with the morality of
reporting unethical behavior: “I got sexually harassed. Do I report this guy to my boss?
What is ethics [sic] here?(p. 17). For this individual the morality of reporting this abuse
is ambiguous even if for others it may seem straightforward. As these examples imply,
1 We define moral awareness consistently with Rest (1986, p. 7): moral awareness entails making “…some sort of
interpretation of the particular situation in terms of what actions were possible, who (including oneself) would be affected
by each course of action, and how the interested parties would regard such effects on their welfare.” Similarly, Tenbrunsel
and Smith-Crowe (2008) argued that awareness entails taking ethical considerations into account.
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we may experience moral ambiguity prior to making a decision or acting. Ambiguity also
may arise when one is unexpectedly confronted with the feedback that one has
misbehaved.
That researchers have found organizations’ ethical standards to influence the
ethicality of individuals’ behavior (Kish-Gephart et al. 2010, Pierce and Snyder 2008)
suggests that such standards are communicated to organizational members and to some
extent heeded by them. Further, Bird and Waters (1987) found that managers commonly
recognized their moral obligation to their organization as a priority: “The standard of
organizational responsibility calls for managers to assign preeminent priority to
furthering the objectives and economic viability of their organizations especially in the
face of other considerations that would assign lower prominence to these goals” (p. 9).
Organizational responsibility relates to broader moral standards, such as Haidt’s (2007)
notion of loyalty. This is to say that organizational members may feel that they have
moral obligations to their organizations on the basis of responsibility or loyalty and may
align themselves with their organizations’ ethical norms accordingly.
We consider the important role played by organizational spokespersons, or those seen
to be communicating on behalf of the organization, in conveying ethical norms through
reprimanding individuals for allegedly failing in their moral obligations to the
organization. For the purposes of our theorizing, moral ambiguity is considered
influential to the recruitment into collective corruption regardless of whether the
individual feels moral ambiguity just prior to or after the reprimand. The mere experience
of moral ambiguity post-reprimand influences the individual’s moral reasoning. Both
moral ambiguity and a sense of moral obligation to the organization will increase the
likelihood that individuals will heed the negative sanction of the spokesperson. Although
spokespersons are likely to elicit moral emotions, we do not assume they do so
purposefully. To the extent that organizations’ ethical norms are misaligned with those of
society, we argue that spokespersons will promote the spread of corruption.
Emotion-Evoked Collective Corruption Process
Here, drawing on the research we discuss at length above, we lay out our theoretical
model (see Figure 1), consisting of direct and vicarious pathways to collective corruption.
Prior to delving into our model, however, we note the boundary conditions of our
theorizing. First, we assume that corruption already exists in the organization. Second,
our model begins with an inciting event, which we call a violation-sanctioning event: an
individual commits a violation and is rebuked for it by an organizational spokesperson.
We assume that the “transgression” is an action that is considered appropriate outside of
the organization, but is considered inappropriate inside the organization because it runs
counter to the organization’s corrupt practices. Third, individuals (both targets and non-
targets of spokespersons’ sanctions) in our model are well-intentioned and experience
moral ambiguity which is present at the time of post-sanction moral reasoning. With
these boundary conditions in place, we argue below that through emotional processes
such violation-sanctioning events can engender the spread of corruption to the target of
the sanction and beyond to non-targeted individuals. We conclude the paper by
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considering the implications for our theorizing if we relax some of these boundary
conditions.
Direct process. First, we theorize a direct process. The target individual is likely to
react to the morally-charged rebuke entailed in the violation-sanctioning event with a
negatively valenced moral emotion that is either self-directed (embarrassment, guilt, or
shame) or other-directed (anger or contempt). The former suggests to the target
individual that he or she did in fact do something wrong; the latter suggests to the target
individual that he or she did not do anything wrong, rather it is the spokesperson who is
in the wrong. Importantly, these reactions (self-directed versus other-directed emotions)
are likely under different conditions, and they have different implications for the spread
of corruption. In addition to the work previously referenced, we rely on Goffman’s
(1959) theory of social interaction as a basis for understanding the pressure targets may
feel to align themselves with the organization, yet we also propose a lack of
organizational identification (Ashforth and Mael 1989) as an antidote to this pressure.
In Goffman’s (1959) analysis of social interactions, he described the necessity of
individuals cooperating with each other in order to enact a social situation of a
determinant type. He gives an example of this necessity from his study of a hospital, in
which a medical intern is subjected to a daily ritual meant to display the intern’s
ignorance. In particular, the intern was made to comment without advanced preparation
on patients’ charts, and his answers were compared to staff doctors’ own chart
assessments, which were based on advanced preparation. Goffman’s point is that despite
the apparent disadvantage to the intern, he participates.
Several conclusions from Goffman’s (1959) theory help to explain why the intern
would participate. First, individuals often feel a sense of obligation to interact with others
in a way that upholds others’ presentation of themselves. The intern likely feels an
obligation to interact with the staff doctors as if they are more knowledgeable than him.
Second, groups of individuals interacting are dependent upon each other to cooperate and
each individual ought to look to the group to know how the situation is defined, and the
group ought to tell the individual what is expected of him or her. Interestingly, the bond
of the group is not necessarily a warm one, rather it may be a “…formal relationship that
is automatically extended and received as soon as the individual takes a place on the
team,” that is, joins the group (p. 83). Here the intern joined the group when he accepted
his internship; the expectations of the situation defined by the staff doctors are made clear
to the intern, and he meets these expectations. Furthermore, in an organizational context
there can be the additional pressure of a sense of moral obligation individuals have to
their organizations (e.g., to pursue the organizations’ interests and be loyal).
Yet, as is true of the situation of interest in our paper, not everyone cooperates in
these interactions despite the pressure toward doing so. In reference to instances of
noncooperation, Goffman (1959, p. 97) remarks on the importance of the “director”:
“…the director may be given the special duty of bringing back into line any member of
the team whose performance becomes unsuitable.” Goffman indicates that directors
primarily employ sanctioning to do so. In our case, the organizational spokesperson plays
the role of director. When targets are sanctioned by an organizational spokesperson,
Goffman’s analysis suggests that the target will experience pressure to heed the sanction
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on two fronts. First, the mere fact that the target is sanctioned indicates to the target that
he or she has committed a transgression in straying from the defined social situation.
Further, the content of the sanction, entailing an accusation that the target has harmed or
potentially harmed the organization, explicitly indicates that the target has morally
transgressed. Second, the fact that the spokesperson presents himself or herself as a
spokesperson means that the target may feel some level of obligation to treat the
spokesperson as such.
Similarly, Milgram (1969, p. 150) argued that it is exactly this difficulty that led his
participants to agree to inflict harm on another person:
Since to refuse to obey the experimenter is to reject his claim to competence and
authority in this situation, a severe social impropriety is necessarily involved. The
experimental situation is so constructed that there is no way the subject can stop
shocking the learner without violating the experimenter’s self-definition. Thus, the
subject fears that if he breaks off, he will appear arrogant, untoward, and rude. Such
emotions, although they appear small in scope alongside the violence being done to the
learner, nonetheless help bind the subject into obedience.
In the situation we describe, it would be awkward for targets to deny the sanction because
to do so would be to deny the self-definition of the spokesperson, or at least the behaviors
advocated by the spokesperson. Thus, it is these pressures that would lead targets to
essentially internalize the spokesperson’s sanction, meaning that targets would
experience negative, self-directed emotions: guilt, shame, or embarrassment.
However, there is an important, but implicit assumption in the argument thus far:
that targets care about their participation in the situation. Some individuals care more and
are likely to respond to the violation-sanctioning event as we have described, but some
care less and they are likely to respond to the same event differently. We contend that
when individuals’ identities are based in part on their membership in their organization
(Ashforth and Mael 1989, Bartel et al. 2012), they will be more motivated to participate
in and sustain the defined social situations of their organizations and feel a sense of
moral obligation to the organization than those whose identities are not wrapped up in
their organizational membership (Warren and Smith-Crowe 2008). They will be more
motivated to internalize sanctions as these are messages containing information important
to their goal of sustaining situations and fulfilling their moral obligations. Thus, they will
be more likely to experience self-directed moral emotions (e.g., see Eller et al. 2011 who
found that embarrassment is more likely to occur in front of ingroup rather than outgroup
members). Consistent with our rationale, higher organizational identification corresponds
to increased cooperation (Bartel 2001, Dukerich et al. 2002).2
At the same time, those lower in organizational identification will care less about
cooperating and will not feel the same sense of moral obligation. Their organizational
membership does not factor significantly into their self-conception, and therefore, they
2 There is some evidence that those high in organizational identification may be the people who blow the whistle rather
than cooperate (Vadera 2010); this is consistent with some popular accounts of whistle-blowing (Woodford 2012). Yet, we
think that under circumstances of moral ambiguity a connection between organizational identification and whistle blowing
is less likely. Employees who want to save the organization because they care must first recognize that the organization
needs saving.
11
are not as motivated to accept criticism that would allow them to align themselves more
closely to the organization. Rather, they are likely to feel angry at or contemptuous
toward the spokesperson who questions their morality and thus questions their right to
behave as they see fit and their ability to make competent moral choices. Questioning
their morality in this way may also signal the incompetence of the spokesperson. Along
these lines, Lemay et al. (2012) found that victims committed to a relationship with
someone who had harmed them felt hurt in response to being harmed, but those not
committed felt angry. Regarding contempt, Fischer and Roseman (2007) concluded that it
reflects the motivation of those who experience it to distance themselves from those who
caused it. Notably, different than other treatments of the influence of organizational
identification, we emphasize the link between identification and the experience of
specific emotions that directly affect and are entailed in moral reasoning. In the context
we describe, high organizational identification is likely to be associated with negative,
self-directed moral emotions, while low organizational identification is likely to be
associated with negative, other-directed moral emotions.
To illustrate, imagine that a well-intentioned financial manager decides to release
some financial information regarding earnings projections to a Securities and Exchange
Commission (SEC) regulator. Imagine further that the financial manager is subsequently
reprimanded by a vice president (an organizational spokesperson) for giving the SEC
regulator too much information about the corporation’s future earnings. The vice
president’s contention is that the financial manager has harmed the corporation and put
the shareholders at risk by conveying such information, and that she has therefore acted
unethically.3 Given the ambiguity surrounding the release of financial information, there
is opportunity for the vice president to influence the financial manager’s sense of right
and wrong, even though we assume in this case that the release of information was
appropriate and that the pressure from the vice president against sharing information with
the SEC is part of the existing corruption in the corporation. Importantly, the financial
manager’s susceptibility to influence is likely to be greater to the extent that she more
strongly identifies with the firm, in which case she is likely to be motivated to align
herself with the organization, both in terms of heeding the messages of spokespersons
and aligning herself with the practices of the organization. Thus, when reprimanded, her
likely reaction will be guilt, shame, or embarrassment. On the contrary, to the extent that
the financial manager does not base her self-conception on her membership in the
organization, she will be more likely to experience anger or contempt, suggesting that it
is the vice president who is in the wrong. Based on the above rationale, we propose the
following:
Proposition 1a: To the extent that target individuals identify with the organization, a
sanction from an organizational spokesperson for violating a corrupt organizational
3 While U.S. public corporations are required to provide formal reporting to the SEC on a regular basis, whether they are
required to release soft information regarding subjective assessments and projections is often debated (Hiler 1987). This
means too that soft information could be released by an individual manager without passing through upper management for
approval. Financial information is extremely valuable in the marketplace and the release of any information not equally
accessible by all shareholders creates disadvantages and occasions for opportunism, as well as inaccurate portrayals of firm
health. Therefore, the release of accurate and equally-accessible financial information is critical for investors and the
integrity of the marketplace.
12
practice is likely to prompt self-directed, negative moral emotions in the individuals
(guilt, shame, or embarrassment).
Proposition 1b: To the extent that target individuals do not identify with the
organization, a sanction from an organizational spokesperson for violating a corrupt
organizational practice is likely to prompt other-directed, negative moral emotions in
the individuals (anger or contempt).
Recalling our discussion of the functions of moral emotions, the emotions triggered
by the sanctions of spokespersons are likely to influence target individuals moral
reasoning, judgment, affective residue, and behavior. First, the experience of a moral
emotion is likely to affect moral reasoning by triggering a reflection process in which the
target considers why he or she is experiencing this emotion. When the emotion is self-
directed (guilt, shame, or embarrassment), the target is likely to reflect on the wrong he or
she may have done. Because the “transgression” was unintentional, the wrong done is
probably not immediately obvious to the target, but is something that the target may
come to “understand” through reflection. When the emotion is other-directed (anger or
contempt), the target is likely to reflect on the wrong the spokesperson did in accusing
him or her of transgressing. In the case of the financial manager, self-directed emotions
would likely trigger reflection on why her actions were bad for her organization, but
other-directed emotions would likely trigger reflection on how the spokesperson has
insulted her with his accusation.
Second, the outcomes of this reflection process are likely to reflect the orientation
of the emotion (cf. appraisal tendency theory, Keltner and Lerner 2010). Targets who
experience negative, self-directed emotions are likely to come to think of their actions as
wrong (meaning that their moral judgment has shifted), and the actions in question are
likely to become associated with corresponding affective residue. For instance, if the
financial manager experiences guilt when reprimanded by the vice president, she may
come to think of sharing earnings projections with the SEC as wrong and something to
avoid. The corresponding affective residue means that she will have a flash of guilt if she
considers sharing earnings projections with the SEC in the future. In contrast, targets who
experience other-directed emotions are not likely to come to think of their actions as
wrong (meaning that their moral judgment has not shifted), and the actions in question
are not likely to become associated with the affective residue of wrong actions. If the
financial manager is angered by the vice president’s rebuke, for instance, then she is not
likely to come to think of sharing earnings projections with the SEC as wrong, or to have
any affective residue consistent with this judgment.
Third, to the extent that targets’ judgment and affective residue become aligned
with the corrupt practices of the organization (as in the case of targets who experience
self-directed emotions), targets are more likely to participate in collective corruption in
the future. Conversely, to the extent that the judgment and affective residue of the targets
who react to spokespersons’ sanctions with anger and contempt do not become aligned
with the organization’s corrupt practices, future participation of targets in corrupt
activities becomes less likely. In the example where the financial manager comes to think
of her actions as wrong, her affective residue will reinforce this moral judgment and
behavior. In contrast, in the example where she reflects on the wrong the spokesperson
13
has done, she will not experience affective residue that would promote her participation
in corruption.
Supportive of the process described, experimental studies on transgressions and
negative, self-directed moral emotions (guilt, shame, and embarrassment) have found that
an increased willingness to comply occurs after the experience of these emotions (Apsler
1975, Carlsmith and Gross 1969, Carlson and Miller 1987, Freedman et al. 1967). Brock
and Becker (1966) found that undergraduate participants, who were induced to transgress
(i.e., who ostensibly damaged the experimenter’s equipment and thus jeopardized his
chances of completing his master’s thesis) were far more likely to subsequently sign a
petition supporting doubling their tuition than those participants who had not
transgressed. In fact, none of the participants in the no-transgression condition signed the
petition. Theorists have asserted that individuals comply with the hope of alleviating their
negative emotional states (Van Kleef et al. 2006). In support of this explanation,
Baumeister and colleagues (1994) explained that guilt mediates the relationship between
transgressions and helping behavior because guilt is a community-driven emotion.
“Helping is an act of communion, and guilt is based on a threat to communion; thus,
helping is a subjective means of overcoming this threat. Helping can restore equity, repair
possible damage to the relationship, and, in general, promote social attachment”
(Baumeister et al. 1994, p. 249). We expect other self-directed, negative moral emotions
to operate in a similar fashion. For instance, there is evidence that individuals will
comply with requests after experiencing embarrassment because they want to restore
their social self-esteem and maintain their affiliations (Apsler 1975).
Further, research has found that anticipated emotions can prevent future
transgressions. Grasmick and colleagues (1993) examined the effects of shame and
embarrassment associated with drunk driving offenses and self-reported measures of
drunk driving before and after a 10-year period when public service announcements,
legal sanctions, and television programming against drunk driving rose dramatically.
They found that after a period of heightened communication and sanctions, individuals
were more likely to associate shame with drunk driving and less likely to engage in the
behavior. Grasmick and colleagues (1991) similarly found a decrease in littering after an
anti-littering campaign was implemented even though the campaign did not coincide with
an increase in legal sanctions. Instead, they attributed the program’s success to linking
shame and embarrassment to the act of littering. In a field experiment, Panagopoulus
(2010) found that anticipated pride (voters’ names would be published in the local
newspaper) and shame (nonvoters’ names would be published in the local newspaper)
motivated eligible voters to vote in elections. Similarly, Tangney (1994) found that
participants who anticipated feeling guilty reported they would not steal something they
needed even if they knew they would not be caught. Cohen and colleagues (2011, 2013)
found that those who are more prone to feel guilty and thus anticipate guilt are less
likely to engage in counterproductive and unethical work behaviors. Cohen et al. (2011)
also found that MBA students higher in guilt proneness were judged by their counterparts
in a negotiation exercise as more honest.
Thus, in this way affective residue can serve as a form of internal punishment that
will perpetuate independently of external punishment. In an organizational context, by
promoting the attachment of negative, self-directed moral emotions to specific behaviors,
14
organizational spokespersons have the ability to create a self-reinforcing system of
internal sanctioning that does not require continued detection and external punishment.
Likewise, pride can serve as an internalized positive reinforcement.
However, negative, other-directed moral emotions result in different outcomes.
Anger prompts a desire to change what is wrong with the perpetrator (Fischer and
Roseman 2007) in this case, the organizational spokesperson. Such change is often
sought via “…short-term attacks (mostly verbal aggression)…” (Fischer and Roseman
2007, p. 112), and although the anger does not make the individual insensitive to
reconciliation attempts on the part of the perpetrator (Hutcherson and Gross 2011), such
attempts are less likely than perpetrators responding destructively (Lemay et al. 2012).
For instance, across several studies employing recall tasks, Lemay et al. found that anger
responses were associated with victims’ having a goal of changing the perpetrator’s
behavior (e.g., “I wanted this person to do things my way”, p. 9) and of aggressing
toward the perpetrator (e.g., “I yelled at him/her”, p. 9). Perpetrators typically responded
to this anger-based aggression with further destructive behavior (e.g., “I criticized
him/her”, p. 9).
In contrast to anger, but similarly unhelpful to the spread of corruption, contempt
prompts a desire to disassociate (Fischer and Roseman 2007) in this case, a desire to
disassociate from the organizational spokesperson. Contempt is considered to be more
damning to relationships than anger because while anger can be mitigated by
reconciliation attempts on the part of the perpetrator, contempt is unlikely to be
diminished by the same (Fischer and Roseman 2007). Indeed, contempt is associated with
social distance, indicating that the contemptuous person is superior (Melwani et al. 2012).
Thus, an individual who responds to an organizational spokesperson’s sanction with
anger or contempt is likely to focus on what is wrong with the spokesperson and less
likely to focus on the message contained in the spokesperson’s sanction.
Based on the above rationale, we propose the following:
Proposition 2a: Target individuals who experience self-directed, negative moral
emotions (guilt, shame, or embarrassment) are likely to engage in reflection and moral
reasoning such that their moral judgment is more likely to shift toward, and their
affective residue is more likely to align with, corrupt practices.
Proposition 2b: Target individuals who experience other-directed, negative moral
emotions (anger or contempt) are likely to engage in reflection and moral reasoning
such that their moral judgment is less likely to shift toward, and their affective residue
is less likely to align with, corrupt practices.
Proposition 3a: To the extent that their moral judgment and affective residue align
with corrupt organizational practices, target individuals are more likely to participate
in collective corruption in the future.
Proposition 3b: To the extent that their moral judgment and affective residue do not
align with corrupt organizational practices, target individuals are less likely to
participate in collective corruption in the future, thus triggering a violation-
sanctioning event.
15
Importantly, we assume that the pressure targets experience to align themselves with the
corrupt practices of the organization is not necessarily an isolated event, but something
that may happen repeatedly, particularly when targets resist compliance. We discuss this
possibility below, but here we note that the process we have theorized thus far may have
an incremental rather than a definitive influence.
Vicarious process. We theorize also that corruption can spread via a vicarious
process (Bandura 1977, Kelly and Barsade 2001). This entails organizational members
learning about right and wrong by witnessing the transgressions of others, or hearing
about such incidents (e.g., in the context of informal training or storytelling), as well as
target individuals’ responses to these transgressions. We refer to those who vicariously
experience violation-sanctioning events as non-target individuals. While Bandura’s
(1977) vicarious process focuses on developing expectancies regarding reinforcements by
observing the behaviors and consequences of others, our approach centers on developing
expectancies regarding emotions by observing and sharing in the feelings experienced by
others (cf. Niedenthal and Brauer 2012, p. 269). For instance, observers can come to
expect that if they engage in certain behaviors, they are likely to feel guilty. In the context
of our model, the vicarious process of spreading corruption necessitates that non-target
individuals understand that their affective response is a reaction to the target individual’s
experience so that they can understand what behaviors are associated with their emotions.
Such social learning can take place through an emotional contagion process whereby
non-target individuals catch” the emotions of others thereby coming to experience the
same emotions (e.g., Barsade 2002, Kelly and Barsade 2001, Pugh 2001).
Emotional contagion can occur through conscious or subconscious processes
(Barsade 2002, Hawk et al. 2011, Shamay-Tsoory 2011, Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2009). The
conscious process entails perspective-taking; non-target individuals assess situations and
imagine how the people in those situations feel, thereby stimulating a similar emotional
response in themselves (Barsade 2002, see also Ashforth and Humphrey 1995, Ashforth
and Saks 2002). Moreover, non-target individuals may understand this affective
information as being indicative of how one should feel in such a situation (Barsade 2002,
de Sousa 1987, Niedenthal and Brauer 2012). The subconscious process entails rapid,
involuntary mimicry (Barsade 2002, Barsade et al. 2009, Hatfield et al. 1993),
particularly facial mimicry, which then causes non-target individuals to experience the
emotions of those they are mimicking; this process takes place via the mirror neuron
system (Barsade et al. 2009, Shamay-Tsoory 2011; see Niedenthal and Brauer 2012 for a
review). In their research on empathy, Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues (Shamay-Tsoory
2011, Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2009) have argued that while these two processes (conscious
and subconscious) are associated with separate neural structures, both may become
activated by a given stimulus.
Demonstrating the contagious nature of emotions, Miller (1987) found that
observers of embarrassing incidents experienced empathetic embarrassment. As Miller
(1987, p. 1068) explained, “the maintenance of proper conduct in social interaction seems
to be such a central concern and such a precarious undertaking that envisioning ourselves
in the place of embarrassed others even if we are innocent bystanders may cause us to
suffer empathic embarrassment.” Similarly, Barsade (2002) found that in a laboratory
16
task, participants came to experience the emotion first displayed by a confederate. In an
ethnographic study of an orchestra, Maitlis and Ozcelik (2004) observed emotional
contagion via perspective-taking as individuals coped with their colleagues being fired.
These findings align with the results of Gump and Kulik’s (1997) laboratory experiment,
which suggests that threatening events (e.g., negative sanctions) may facilitate emotional
contagion more so than nonthreatening events.
To illustrate the importance of emotional contagion in our theoretical model, we
return to our example and consider that a colleague from the organization (a non-target
individual) may have watched the financial manager being reprimanded by a vice
president for sharing too much information with the SEC. This colleague likely also
observed the financial manager showing outward signs of either self-directed (shame,
embarrassment, or guilt) or other-directed (anger or contempt) emotions. Imagining
himself in the financial manager’s shoes, the colleague might come to feel the same
emotion he sees the financial manager feeling in reaction to the reprimand. Importantly,
by taking the perspective of the financial manager and empathizing with her, the
colleague can come to understand that sharing earnings projections with the SEC is
wrong (in the case of self-directed emotions) or is not wrong (in the case of other-
directed emotions). Based on the above discussion, we propose the following:
Proposition 4a: Vicarious exposure to target individualsself-directed, negative moral
emotions (guilt, shame, or embarrassment) prompted by a negative sanction from an
organizational spokesperson will elicit the same emotions in non-target individuals.
Proposition 4b: Vicarious exposure to target individualsother-directed, negative
moral emotions (anger or contempt) prompted by a negative sanction from an
organizational spokesperson will elicit the same emotions in non-target individuals.
Importantly, the emotional displays of the target individual provide critical
information for framing the situation. De Cremer and colleagues (2008) found in their
laboratory study that observers’ perceptions of an authority’s fairness depend upon the
target individual’s moral emotions, suggesting that others’ moral emotions serve as
important sense-making cues. It is important to note that De Cremer and colleagues’
(2008) findings were only supported for situations of ambiguity, which corresponds with
our theoretical lens and the theoretical foundation of other collective corruption theorists
(Ashforth and Anand 2003, Palmer 2008). In particular, Palmer (2008) noted that
employees, in times of uncertainty, look to others when they are defining the situation
and determining the appropriate way to act or think. In short, emotional contagion is not
only effective for spreading emotional responses, but it also serves as a means to
providing information for framing a social situation, whereby certain moral emotions are
associated with certain situations.
In this case, when behaviors are associated with guilt, shame, or embarrassment in
target individuals, non-target individuals can learn that certain behaviors are considered
unethical and can develop corresponding affective residue (Baumeister et al. 2007,
Damasio 1994), which will act as an internal sanction. Along with the judgment that the
behavior is wrong, this affective residue will likely inhibit non-target individuals from
engaging in the behavior in the future. Conversely, non-target individuals who see or hear
17
about target individuals reacting with anger at or contempt for organizational
spokespersons are not likely to come to see the behavior in question as wrong, or to
acquire affective residue aligned with corrupt organizational practices. For these reasons,
non-target individuals who catch anger or contempt are not likely to engage in collective
corruption in the future. Hence,
Proposition 5a: Non-target individuals who vicariously experience self-directed,
negative moral emotions (guilt, shame, or embarrassment) are likely to engage in
reflection and moral reasoning such that their moral judgment is more likely to shift
toward, and their affective residue is more likely to align with, corrupt practices.
Proposition 5b: Non-target individuals who vicariously experience other-directed,
negative moral emotions (anger or contempt) are likely to engage in reflection and
moral reasoning such that their moral judgment is less likely to shift toward, and their
affective residue is less likely to align with, corrupt practices.
Proposition 6a: To the extent that non-target individuals’ moral judgment and
affective residue align with corrupt organizational practices, they are more likely to
participate in collective corruption in the future.
Proposition 6b: To the extent that non-target individuals’ moral judgment and
affective residue do not align with corrupt organizational practices, they are less likely
to participate in collective corruption in the future, thus triggering a violation-
sanctioning event.
As we stipulated with the direct process, here too we do not assume that the vicarious
process necessarily will have a definitive impact on moral reasoning and its outcomes;
we elaborate below.
Importantly, the vicarious pathway is efficient. While the direct pathway suggests
that organizational spokespersons who recruit others to participate in corrupt practices
must work at the slow pace of inducting one person at a time, the vicarious pathway
suggests the possibility of influencing multiple persons at a time. Corruption in
organizations would most certainly be stymied if the only means for spreading corruption
were direct. Rather, through vicarious means the spread of corruption resembles, as
Ashforth and colleagues (2008) put it, the spread of a virus-like infection. Organizational
members, relatively en masse, may be ensnared by the emotion-evoked collective
corruption process merely by witnessing or hearing about an event that evokes moral
emotions. In fact, the virulence of emotional contagion may be increased to the extent
that multiple people are vicariously exposed at once (Hatfield and Rapson 2004). That is,
it stands to reason that once emotion begins to spread from one person to another, it
becomes more difficult for each subsequent person to be unaffected by these emotion
cues.
Feedback loop. Thus far we have argued that a violation-sanctioning event will
prompt self-directed or other-directed moral emotions, which will ultimately promote the
spread of collective corruption or not. If the process we detailed above does result in
individuals participating in corrupt practices in the future, a feedback loop can be
18
triggered by praise from an organizational spokesperson. Having learned via
transgression what behavior is organizationally desirable and “moral,” an organizational
member is likely to experience pride when praised for engaging in that desirable behavior
in the future. Based on our previous argument, we would expect those higher in
organizational identification to be more likely to respond to praise with pride because
they care to align themselves with the organization; those low in organizational
identification may not respond to praise emotionally.
For instance, subsequent to her participation in corrupt practices, the financial
manager may experience a sense of pride associated with praise for behaving in line with
the organization by not divulging earnings projections to the SEC (e.g., “good job
handling the SEC you handled them like a pro”). Pride, in turn, prompts moral
reasoning, as she reflects upon what she has to feel proud about (i.e., protecting the
shareholders and organization by withholding information). This reflection will serve to
reinforce the previously learned lesson about right and wrong, and the positive affective
residue likely to now be associated with the corrupt behavior will make future
compliance more likely. Similar effects may be seen in non-targets via the vicarious
process.
It is worth noting, however, that in some organizations, individuals may not be
praised explicitly for engaging in corrupt actions; rather in these organizations, corruption
would be spread only via negative sanctions and negatively valenced, self-directed
emotions. Further, the emotion-evoked corruption process may not result in alignment
between the individual and the organization. If individuals do not engage in collective
corruption in the future, a direct, negative sanction from an organizational spokesperson
will restart the process; that is, a violation-sanctioning event will trigger the experience of
a negative moral emotion, which will influence moral reasoning, moral judgment,
affective residue, and future behavior. That the process can restart itself with each new
“transgression” is important because while we do not assume that one negative sanction
from an organizational spokesperson will have definitive influence over the individuals’
moral reasoning, judgment, and so forth, we do assume that with repeated exposure to
this process individuals become more and more likely to eventually become aligned with
the organization.!!
Based on the above rationale, we propose the following:
Proposition 7a: Future participation in collective corruption resulting in positive
reinforcement from an organizational spokesperson will prompt a self-directed,
positive moral emotion (pride).
Proposition 7b: The relationship described in Proposition 7a will be moderated by
organizational identification such that the relationship will be stronger for those
higher in organizational identification compared to those lower in organizational
identification.
Proposition 7c: Future nonparticipation in collective corruption resulting in a negative
sanction from an organizational spokesperson is likely to reactivate the emotion-
evoked process such that target individuals higher in organizational identification are
likely to react with self-directed, negative emotions (guilt, shame, or embarrassment),
19
while target individuals lower in organizational identification are likely to react with
other-directed, negative emotions (anger or contempt).
Proposition 8a: Target individuals who experience a self-directed, positive moral
emotion (pride) in relation to participating in corrupt practices are likely to engage in
reflection and moral reasoning such that their moral judgment is more likely to shift
toward, and their affective residue is more likely to align with, corrupt practices.
Proposition 8b: Vicarious exposure to target individuals’ self-directed, positive moral
emotions (pride) prompted by positive reinforcement from an organizational
spokesperson will elicit the same emotion in non-target individuals.
Proposition 8c: Non-target individuals who vicariously experience a self-directed,
positive moral emotion (pride) in relation to participating in corrupt practices are
likely to engage in reflection and moral reasoning such that their moral judgment is
more likely to shift toward and their affective residue is more likely to align with
corrupt practices.
Discussion
In this paper we present theory on the role of moral emotions in the spread of collective
corruption: the emotion-evoked collective corruption model. In organizations in which
corruption already exists, individuals may be rebuked by other organizational members
(spokespersons), who seem to speak on behalf of the organization, for “transgressions”
actions seen as wrong in the organization because they impede corrupt practices, but are
considered right outside the organization. We argue that individuals’ emotional responses
to these violation-sanctioning events affect their moral reasoning and future likelihood of
participating in corruption. Those who internalize the sanction (experience guilt, shame,
or embarrassment) are likely to conclude that they have in fact done wrong and they will
be likely to participate in corrupt practices in the future due to both their resulting moral
judgment and the associated affective residue. Praise for future compliance resulting in
pride serves as further reinforcement. Those who reject the sanction (experience anger or
contempt) are likely to conclude that they have not done anything wrong. These
individuals are unlikely to participate in corrupt practices in the future due to their
resulting moral judgment and the associated affective residue. We further theorize that
through emotional contagion processes, bystanders may be vicariously drawn into
corruption, depending on whether they experience self-directed or other-directed
emotions. It is emotional contagion that helps explain the efficient spread of corruption.
Our theory complements existing process models because we consider how
corruption might spread to a population not well-represented in existing theory: the well-
intentioned and morally engaged. Whereas previous theory captures quite well the dark
paths toward corruption trampled by the ill-intentioned and the thoughtless, there seems
to be an implicit assumption that the well-intentioned and thoughtful are immune to
becoming entangled in corruption. Yet, a consideration of the role of moral emotions in
the process of moral reasoning suggests that even those who are trying to do good can
become confused. That is, the functional role played by emotions in reasoning (the idea
20
of emotion as information, de Sousa 1987) is undermined by inappropriate emotions that
convey a false impression of reality (like feeling ashamed of doing a good deed). Of
course, such confusion is not inevitable as our theorizing about anger and contempt
suggests. More broadly, a consideration of the emotional lives of individuals in
organizations is a promising avenue toward understanding and predicting behavior in
organizations, which is embedded and unfolds in the context of relationships.
Relaxing the Boundary Conditions
Here we expand on our theorizing by considering the implications of relaxing some of the
boundary conditions beginning with moral ambiguity. If individuals in the situation we
described experience moral certainty rather than ambiguity, we speculate that the results
of the violation-sanctioning event could be represented essentially by a hybrid of our
theorizing and existing theory. Likely individuals sanctioned for doing wrong when they
are certain they have not done anything wrong will respond with anger at or contempt for
the spokesperson. What ensues from there could be what we have described previously,
where the individual ultimately does not engage in corruption and her reaction may
inoculate others against corrupt practices via emotional contagion. Alternatively, after the
anger or contempt recedes, these individuals may consider the instrumental reasons for
joining in corruption; that is, though they know it is wrong and want to do the right thing,
they may be tempted by the promise of rewards. The result could be something like
“willful blindness” (Heffernan 2011), a reference to the legal notion that we are
responsible for things that we should and could have known, but chose not to see. In
psychological terms, these individuals may morally disengage (Bandura et al. 1996) and
follow the mindless path toward corruption articulated by existing theory (Ashforth and
Anand 2003, Brief et al. 2001, Moore 2009, Palmer 2008). We further speculate that
while corruption could spread to others in this case via social learning (Bandura 1977),
without the motivational force of emotion behind it, the spread of corruption is likely to
be less efficient. Interestingly, it may be the condition of moral certainty that allows for
an understanding of when our theorizing and existing theory might essentially both hold.
We also consider the implications of relaxing the violation-sanctioning event
condition. In order for moral emotions to play a role in whether or not collective
corruption spreads, they must be evoked. This is the purpose the violation-sanctioning
event serves in our theorizing. Yet, other triggers are conceivable. Due to moral
ambiguity, a well-intentioned individual may haplessly stumble into engaging in corrupt
practices, perhaps just modeling what he has seen others do. Subsequent praise from an
organizational spokesperson for engaging in corruption can lead to a sense of pride,
which will reinforce the behavior. Individuals may overhear others talking about them
and their “transgressions,” arousing negative self-directed (guilt, shame, or
embarrassment) or other-directed (anger or contempt) emotions, which could motivate
them to participate in corruption or not, respectively. Even gossip or stories about others
could arouse these negative emotions when the protagonists are disparaged for
“transgressions” that listeners have themselves committed. Importantly, though, to the
extent that moral emotions are elicited privately (e.g., in the example of overhearing
21
others talking) or their expression is carefully regulated (e.g., when individuals mask
their emotions), corruption is unlikely to spread via emotional contagion.
Future Research Directions
As discussed above, we assume that the spread of corruption would be thwarted at least
to some extent by disambiguation. As such, an important avenue for future research
would be investigating the factors that strengthen and weaken moral ambiguity. We
expect, for instance, that the nature of the work itself could influence moral ambiguity.
Some work is highly specialized or entails tasks that do not easily relate to the
experiences of employees’ personal lives (for examples see Margolis and Molinsky
2008). Under such circumstances, moral ambiguity would be more likely because
individuals would have difficulty generalizing ethical judgments from their personal lives
to their work lives. Another factor may be the content of ethics training programs,
particularly those that fail to go beyond platitudes to communicate in practical terms what
individuals should do in different situations. As Donaldson (1996, p. 6) explained, “The
pronouncement that bribery is unacceptable is useless unless accompanied by guidelines
for gift giving, payments to get goods through customs, and ‘requests’ from
intermediaries who are hired to ask for bribes.” Additionally, there may be relevant
individual differences. For instance, Wiltermuth and Flynn (2013) recently demonstrated
that to the extent that individuals possess a sense of power, they experience greater moral
clarity. Similarly, those with strong moral convictions would be likely to experience
moral certainty (at least in the domain of their convictions) as they are intolerant of and
prefer to distance themselves from those who disagree with them (Skitka et al. 2005).
Further, recent research suggests those with strong moral convictions are more distrustful
of authority (Wisneski et al. 2009) and thus presumably less susceptible to influence from
an organizational authority figure.
Another potentially fruitful avenue for future research is a consideration of the role
of mixed emotions in the spread of corruption. We have treated emotions as singular
states, but emotions can occur in succession (e.g., shame can lead to anger, Lewis 1992;
anger can lead to contempt, Fischer and Roseman 2007) or simultaneously (e.g.,
happiness and sadness, Larsen and McGraw 2011; amusement and disgust, McGraw and
Warren 2010). Building on the current paper, while we know there are connections
among shame, anger, and contempt, there is little research into other possible
combinations among the emotions considered herein. The first step would be to identify
likely emotion combinations. The second step would be to investigate the effects of these
combinations. An interesting research direction would be to examine how combinations
of emotions that entail both self and other-directed emotions may or may not facilitate the
spread of corruption. We have argued that guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride (all
self-directed emotions) will facilitate corruption, while anger and contempt (other-
directed emotions) will hinder it. If an individual experiences shame and anger, would the
two cancel each other out? Would the influence of one emotion dominate the other?
Further, are mixed emotions contagious, or are observers likely to catch only one of the
emotions? Suggesting the possibility of the former, Rothman (2011) found that observers
22
can recognize accurately mixed emotions in others. Future research should address these
questions of contagion as well.
Practical Implications
There are several practical implications of our theorizing. First and most broadly, our
theorizing suggests that it is not enough to motivate organizational members to be moral
or to hire employees who are morally motivated because it is not only the thoughtless and
the ill-intentioned who may act unethically. Those who are well-intentioned may be led
astray by negative feedback for getting out of line.Yet, these same events and
processes can also effectively promote ethical outcomes given that appropriate messages
are communicated. The implication is that organizations must carefully monitor what is
being communicated to ensure that these messages are indeed appropriate. Because
formal communications are likely to be visible to those both inside and outside the
organization and are thus unlikely to deviate from societal conceptualizations of right and
wrong, it is informal communications that organizations must especially monitor
Informal, hallwayconversations about ethics, informal training sessions in which
organization members are shown the ropes,and verbal and nonverbal behaviors…”
(Tenbrunsel et al., 2003, p. 291). In addition to monitoring such communications, which
is likely to be difficult without invasive techniques due to their informal nature, formal
communication systems can be used to not only espouse ethical values, but also to
communicate examples of unethical behavior relevant within the organization. In this
way, organizations’ formal systems can help guard against corruption.
Second, though good intentions are not sufficient, they are important. Organizations
could make better use of pride in order to promote ethical behavior by linking pride to
following formal ethics rules. If initial engagement in compliance results in
organizational members’ incurring an affective residue of pride, then not only are they
more likely to comply in the future, but they presumably would be inoculated, at least to
some extent, against subversive influences within organizations. Further, we assume that
a linkage between pride and compliance can help mitigate the problem of moral
ambiguity to the extent that it motivates individuals to contact their organizations’ ethics
hotlines, which serve in part to reduce ambiguity.
We do not offer the same recommendation for other emotions due to the likelihood
of negative side effects. For instance, though shame, guilt, and embarrassment arise
naturally in organizations and are often functional in the sense that they act as internal
sanctions, voice presumably would be even more inhibited than normal (Kish-Gephart et
al. 2009) in organizations that deliberately elicit these emotions to keep employees in
line. We do not recommend that organizations’ deliberately attempt to elicit anger and
contempt for similar reasons. We do note, however, that anger in its naturally occurring
state can be functional in the sense that it motivates people to fix problems (Fischer and
Roseman 2007). Contempt may be dysfunctional in organizations in the sense that it
motivates people to disengage (Fischer and Roseman 2007), though one study has shown
that our performance may improve when we are held in contempt by others (Melwani and
Barsade 2011). In short, of the moral emotions, pride is unique in that its deliberate use
by organizations to promote compliance with formal policies and societal norms offers
23
the most effective, dignified channel for redirecting employees away from participation
in collective corruption.
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31
DIRECT
Other-directed,
negative emotion:
anger, contempt
P1b
P1a
Affective Residue
Corruption
P3b, 6b, 7c
Figure 1 The Emotion-Evoked Corruption Model
Organizational
Identification
Moral Judgment,
Affective Residue
More Aligned
with Corruption
DIRECT
Self-directed,
negative emotion:
shame, guilt,
embarrassment
VICARIOUS
VICARIOUS
DIRECT
Self-directed,
positive emotion:
pride
VICARIOUS
P2a
P2b
Future
Participation
In Corruption
P4b
P4a
P5a
P5b
P3a, 6a
P7a
P8a
P8b
P8c
Violation-
Sanctioning
Event
P7b
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