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Moral Injury – Insights Into Executive Morality and Toxic Organizations

What is Moral Injury?

We know or have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in regard to combat veterans.  “Moral Injury” (MI) is a fairly new classification of a condition they suffer being discussed by psychologists and psychiatrists.  On the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, two PhDs, Shira Maguen and Brett Litz, wrote a fine article, “Moral Injury in the Context of War.”  The Navy Medicine website has a very full PPT, “Moral Injury and Moral Repair,” by Litz.  [NOTE:  This discussion appears to have been blocked by some security program, since this article first appeared.] The National Catholic Partnership on Disability also has a short but poignant paper, Moral Injury,” which includes case illustrations.  National Public Radio’s Neil Conan recently had a program, “Moral Injury: The Psychological Wounds of War,” that addressed MI for public education.   The book cover pictured to the left was written by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini and released this month.

The Definition of “Moral Injury” From the VA webpage:

Events are considered morally injurious if they “transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations”. Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth. The lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.

Symptoms and Effects of Moral Injury:

  • shame, which stems from global self-attributions (e.g., “I am an evil terrible person; I am unforgivable”)
  • guilt
  • anxiety about possible consequences
  • anger about betrayal-based moral injuries

       Behavioral manifestations of moral injury may include:

  • anomie (e.g., alienation, purposelessness, and/or social instability caused by a breakdown in standards and values)
  • withdrawal and self-condemnation
  • self-harming (e.g., suicidal ideation or attempts)
  • self-handicapping behaviors (e.g., alcohol or drug use, self-sabotaging relationships, etc.)

Studies on MI tell us persons who (1) observe; (2) are recruited for participation; or (3) are required or coerced to accept or cover up great to others, that violate their core moral values and codes experience long-term adverse emotional and behavioral problems.  Yet where is the location wherein ‘morality’ exists to be harmed?  Moral values and beliefs exist in a person’s mind. So when a person sees, hears, experiences events that violate her or his moral beliefs and moral core being, these images and sounds–and their immoral signification–create turmoil in the human mind, emotions, and work their way out in dysfunctional behaviors.

The VA notes the emotional impacts:  shame, guilt, anxiety, and anger.  Were these created by momentary, less significant events, they would pass.  When they are created by moral offenses directly contrary to the person’s ideals of what is moral, right, and good, unresolved they remain to torture the person’s memories that he observed and did not oppose; participated for reasons of the moment; or, enabled them through silence or cover-up.

Moral Injury in Corporate Context

Life in a corporation is not real war.  There are no real bullets, grenades, or bombs.  No innocent women, children, or seniors are shot or blown to bits.  There are no interrogation rooms where physical torture is inflicted, sometimes leading to the death of captives.  Yet the military strategies of Sun Tzu long have been studied and applied to business.  Competition is the enemy.  The marketplace is the field of combat.  The highest earnings are the spoils of war, and persons harmed along the way are “collateral damage.”  Interestingly, ex-Marine Jack Hoban teaches just the opposite:  there is a “Life Value” for all persons that calls for ethical commitment.

Regardless of how old you are, or the series of jobs you have had, you have some experience with the core criterion of MI:  the transgression of deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.  From the young person employed in a first job with a fast-food company, to the oldest executive nearing retirement in a Fortune 100 megalith, corporate life includes events that sometimes transgress our most deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.  This is not because corporations are bad organizations.  It is because they are organizations made up of human beings.

Our everyday lives in corporations are filled with moral issues we may note briefly, but take as a matter of course:

  • A person is hired, promoted, disciplined, not disciplined, or terminated for reasons against our moral beliefs
  • A materially false report is given that harms innocent people, or protects persons guilty of harming others from just consequences of their actions
  • A plan is created and implemented that legally increases profits, but which harms persons in ways another offered-but-rejected plan would not have, with only a reduction in the net profits postable after implementation
  • Death or physical harms, whether preventable or learned later, are covered up, evidence destroyed, in conspiracies to prevent litigation or criminal charges

From the lowest to highest paid personnel, people see things happen with moral dimensions.  People harm others in the corporate context because it is a human context.  One response is, “Life happens.  It is what it is.  Accept what you cannot change.  Go with the flow and keep your job.”  Perhaps this is self-preservation.  Perhaps this is our variation of ancient Stoicism, and emotional detachment from Fate.  Yet in some cases, perhaps there is no explanation other than this:  selfishness and a willingness to let others suffer.

Corporations exist with a number of realities designed to prevent or intercept harm to others.  There are federal laws and regulations affecting many types of businesses.  All businesses are aware of EEO laws.  Businesses with HR departments, or HR contracted services, provide access for personnel to report harms, real or perceived, or fears of harm.  In general, the worst of today’s corporations in America are safer places against moral injury than many places in the world.

Nevertheless, we know what we know we have experienced.  We know what we read in the Wall Street Journal and other resources.  MI does occur in the corporate workplace.

Moral Injury and Toxic Corporations

We often say some corporate environments are “toxic.”  The original meaning of the word, of course, is something poisonous, harmful.  By referring to an organization as toxic we expressly mean that the workplace is abusive, anxiety-producing, and unhealthy.  Despite federal laws, such as EEO, and thick personnel manuals inviting us to avail ourselves of Employee Assistance Programs, workplaces can make you sick with anxiety.  Toxic is the right description for some.

What we call “toxic” corporations actually are organizations which have become Cultures of Moral Injury.  Remember that MI is “transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life.”  How does MI occur with such regularity–and without intervention or controls–that an organization becomes a Culture of MI?

Two forces will be mentioned.  The first is the more powerful and common.

  • Profits Over People  When a corporation pursues its profit-making mission and engages, from the CEO on down, in policies and practices that put personnel in morally stressful, compromising, viiolating ways, this is the foundational dynamic for what we call “toxicity.”  We know how competitive things are today.  One serious mistake can be the beginning of a long-term downward spiral.  We understand this; however, when the moral values for other persons are set aside for profit, this is a most dangerous event.  When such an event is not repaired, once the line is crossed, it will become a trend.  Over time, profits will become the ruling principle, “taking no prisoners” and taking no notice of “collateral damage.”  Leadership Ethics Online has more to say on this dynamic.
  • CEO/Executive MI Perpetrators – Some very fine corporations, with great humane traditions built into their profit-making methods, have been put on the path to MI ruin by single individuals appointed as CEOs.  Now strong corporate boards can rein in some of this, however, if a CEO with a chronic MI record and style has been brought in, he (and most of these types are men) likely will not be controlled.  Why?  If a corporation with a healthy tradition reaches out to such a CEO, it likely is in either some financial crisis, or the board seeks to increase profitability accepting risks of warned threats to its historic culture.  A single powerful individual can seed, water, and harvest MI within a shockingly short time.  “It is easier to tear down than build up.”

We know from reading the Wall Street Journal that federal laws and regulations, EEO training and sign-off sheets, and corporation-specific ethics policies, do not prevent the largest corporations from becoming toxic, or Cultures of Moral Injury.  Corporations, with an increasingly alarming regularity in America develop pervasive, well-known, harmful practices against their own internal employees, their customers and clients, and even society at large.

Moral Injury:  Corporate Executives as Perpetrators

Some American CEOs have reputations being what we may call in this context, Moral Injury Perpetrators.  A steady line of career moves where profits were more important than people, where other executives were pawns for abuse, where organizational personnel were exploitable and expendable, create these reputations.  These surround themselves with an inner circle of captains who carry out their will without question, whose own principle of self-preservation will ensure secrecy for the MI executed by the team.

Bernard Madoff is an extreme example.  Readers may be able to identify some CEOs or executives from their own experience who were driven by profits-over-people, putting persons around them in morally stressful, compromising, and violating situations.  In fact, some readers may remember their own MI under such persons.  Shame, guilt, anxiety, and anger are part of those memories.

No healthy or sane person ever would seek to become an MI Perpetrator.  However, it is possible voluntarily to start down that road, if one’s professional goals are all about material things.  If a young man or woman earns serious credentials, MBA/JD/MPA, there are many purely strategic methods learned along the way which are either non-moral or amoral.  Ethics and moral questions mainly are taught as litigation risk management, not as fundamentals for healthy, humane leadership in organizations.  Leadership Ethics Online has much to say on these matters.

Moral Injury:  Corporate Executives As The Injured

Most women and men who now are CEOs or on executive teams have experienced MI.  To observe someone in power planning or committing a moral or financial harm against another person is stressful.  To be recruited by a person in power for a harmful act to another person, or to be coerced into silence by open or implied threats, is fearful, angering, and anxiety-producing.  Compliance creates shame at doing nothing.  These all are emotions within the definition of MI.

CEOs and executives often carry scarring memories for life.  They have observed, aided, or protected perpetrators of MI.  We are adaptive creatures.  Most of us do not brood on the past.  Yet every once in a while, a name comes up, a situation arises, and the old feelings come back.

Coping mechanisms have developed, some dysfunctional.  Sometimes a kind of moral schizophrenia develops.  There is one moral life at home, and another amoral life for profits at work.  We also call this ethical compartmentalization.  People who are good sometimes are caught in webs of moral compromise and habit they just lose their way.  They desire extrication and healing.  They desire moral transcendence.  MI victimization leads to the dysfunctional, self-harming behaviors noted on the VA website.  Burnout may be due to MI more than simple exhaustion.

Moral Injury:  An Exercise in Self-Evaluation

Look at the effects noted above from the VA website.  Let us take those, and begin reflecting on our own experiences in the corporate world.  Let us start from our first jobs, however many years ago.

    1. Make a list of what you consider to be instances of Moral Injury in our experience–witnessed, experienced, collaborated, recruited for silence and suppression.
    2. Make a second column alongside that.  List your emotional and behavioral responses to the events.
    3. Make a third column identifying short- and long-term effects for the people involved.
    4. Make a fourth column describing short- and long-term effects on you–your “learning curve”; your behavioral adjustments; and changes to your own applications of your own moral code at work, including decisions to compromise.

The second through the fourth columns may provide you with some insights into your own moral practices as an executive.

Who wants to “dig around in the past” in bad memories?  It may seem like a negative use of time applied to positive action.  But wait.  You are intelligent.  If you had a lump in your breast, or erratic heart beat, you would go to a physician.  We know that MI creates both emotional symptoms and behavior dysfunctions.  You are wise to begin with this simple self-reflective exercise to discern if past MI may have continuing impairments on you as a leader.

The Morally Healthy Executive

We can be grateful for a most important truth.  Some CEOS have MI in their past, but are healthy and unimpaired.  In fact, it is the very memory of some of their experiences drive them forward to ensure their executive teams, and all in their organization do not experience the same.  Such CEOs use their authority–and daily live out consistent moral examples–to achieve profitability with moral policies and practices.

These are the women and men whose example, uses of authority and influence, refuse to be driven by the principle, profits over people.  What do they do in order to be successful, remain competitive, and grow their organizations?  Let us consider a few principles.

  • They use authority to ensure moral values and discourse are practiced, not just published.
  • They hold themselves accountable to the same standard applied to others.  They do not compartmentalize.  They are not morally schizophrenic.
  • They regularly introduce the moral equation in plans for profits, and invite discussion on how profit can be enhanced by prevention of Moral Injury, and promotion of Moral Benefit.
  • They evaluate executive teams in terms of profit value, as well as Moral Value, which has organization-wide influence for good.
  • They recognize, reward, and promote, prevention of Moral Injury, and promotion of Moral Benefit to the organization.
  • They include among other “preventive health initiatives”–which all recognize as good ROI–Moral Health as a factor affecting profitability.

Jesus and the Toxic Leader: “Diseased Trees”

Jesus Christ discussed bad leaders in his very famous “Sermon on the Mount,” which readers can review in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.  In Matthew, chapter five, verses 15-20, Jesus said the following.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.   Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

One of Jesus’ points in this analogy was the power of behavioral evidence.  A person can talk and talk and talk.  A person can have tons of “credentials,” including outcomes of leading corporations in higher and higher profits (usually at human expense…the workforce’s expense).  Nevertheless, if a person is proclaimed verbally to be a great “producer,” yet produces effects that destroy human beings, look at what the person produces, not what is said about the person.

Jesus also was pointing to the contradiction between external appearance, and between the inner “heart.”  Here he was discussing prophets, who by definition are religious leaders.  Jesus still was not discussing a “special class” of people, but expressing his religious values.  His point was that the person who “alleges” they are “religious,” yet who end up in harming others–which is what thorns and thistles do, cause bleeding and injury–can be known by what they do to others.

Leadership Ethics Online teaches biblical ethics and, in this case, the teachings of Jesus Christ.  If you are a Christian leader, and are harming your executive team or employees, if Jesus Christ means anything to you, really, you are advised to stop the harm.  If you are not a Christian, it is hoped that you can see the simple wisdom of Jesus’ analogy of the analogical-empirical power of deeds over words.

Be healthy, not toxic, and do not allow toxic leaders to make you a toxic worker.  The world is filled with toxicity.  God needs YOU to be Light and Love.  Trust in God to help you be that, despite what others do to you.  You have moral goodness within you.  Act on it.

John D. Willis, PhD, President
Leadership Ethics Online