Barriers To Ethical Judgment and Moral Leadership

Barriers To Ethical Judgment and Moral Leadership

Business leaders often face ethical and moral dilemmas. They are constantly under pressure to make decisions that could lead to legal and ethical misconduct. Executives must use the decision-making process to make good, sound decisions to problem-solve effectively. It is crucial to the decision-making process that ethical judgment is used to deduce which action is most ethical. Making an ethical decision can be a challenging task. Several forces act upon an ethical decision that prevents an ethical decision. Effective leaders should be aware of these barriers and take active measures to overcome them. Messick (2006) considered three barriers prohibiting leaders from making thoughtful, ethical decisions.

This paper will highlight the three barriers detailing how and why they occur and how they are evident in an organization. Additionally, it will appraise how these barriers can impact ethical decision-making and moral leadership on organizational constructs. Finally, it will identify and recommend solutions to ameliorate barriers.

Invisibility of Bias

The first barrier Messick (2006) identified is the invisibility of bias. The invisibility of bias is a person’s inability to see their own bias. This phenomenon can also be known as incrementalism, when acculturation makes small adjustments to one’s ethical behavior that goes unnoticed (Prentice, 2007). This can begin to cause skewed or biased ethical judgments. Messick (2006) acknowledges this illusion of objectivity as the tendency to eliminate ethics from decision-making. Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) referred to this phenomenon as ethical fading.

Ethical Framing

Ethical fading washes the morals out of ethical decisions (Tenbrunsel, 2019). It should be noted that ethical fading is an incremental process that is typically subconscious. The steady accumulation of unethical decisions unconsciously lowers the bar on acceptable ethical behavior (Prentice, 2007). This gradual, declining slope makes it difficult to combat ethical fading.

Language Euphemisms

Framing is an unconscious yet important step in the decision-making process (Schwartz, 2017). How an ethical decision is framed can dictate how the choice is influenced. Tenbrunsel and Messick (2007) called this framing a language euphemism. When an ethical decision is disguised to tell a better narrative (Tenbrunsel & Messick, 2004). It allows the individual to respond differently to the same information (Prentice, 2007). The way a question or decision is framed can influence their decision. Tenbrunsel (2022) mentioned in an interview with the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership that people were likely to make unethical choices when a business frame was embraced.

Language euphemisms are devoid of all ethical implications. Decisions are relabeled to make an unethical decision socially acceptable (Messick, 2006). Messick (2006) noted that research has shown that language euphemisms influence how people view their ethical actions compared to others. People tend to perspective themselves as more moral than others. This illusion of accountability encourages unethical behavior.

Framing is not necessarily a malicious tool. It can be helpful in simplifying a complex topic (Tenbrunsel & Messick, 2004). However, some phrases are so conventionally used that the intended behavior is no longer questioned. For example, in my last role, during interviews, my supervisor routinely disqualified a candidate because they were not a “culture fit.” The original premise behind identifying individuals as “culture fits” was to align not just skills but also personalities and values with the organization (Rivera, 2015). However, as time progressed, it became a means to create a homogenous workforce.

Messick and Bazeman (1996) suggested that people are confused about the originating cause of unethical decision-making due to focusing on self instead of systems, shielding self-interest, and varying moral responsibility. The core of these issues is self-deception. It is challenging to combat this issue since the ideologies that fuel these biases are invisible (hence, the name). Organizations should have structural and systemic policies to counter these actions to promote unethical behavior (Tenbrunsel & Messick, 2004). Additionally, individuals must recognize that no one is immune to ethical fading and language euphemisms. Once acknowledged, an individual can be aware of the enablers of self-deception (Tenbrunsel & Messick, 2004). Employees must also be mindful of their inner thoughts and external environment (Schwartz, 2017). They are morally obligated to question the motives driving their judgment and behaviors (Tenbrunsel & Messick, 2004).

Contextual Ethics

Messick (2006) defined contextual ethics as the second barrier to ethical judgment. Like language euphemisms, contextual ethics plays an important role in decision-making. Ethical dilemmas occur when an individual must choose between ethical values. Since no ethical value takes precedence, this becomes challenging. Many ethical dilemmas and tough choices are perplexing because they operate in a gray area. These choices are filled with contextual details that influence an ethical decision. It becomes difficult to determine the ethically correct outcome.

According to Kidder (1996), these choices are often between right and right—right versus right. Both outcomes have similar moral values—yet a decision must be made. Right-versus-right choices require people to lean on their core moral values to determine a solution. These choices weigh heavier on individuals than right-vs-wrong—which have clearer moral outcomes. To analyze ethical choices, Kidder (1996) organized these right-vs-right choices into four dilemma paradigms: truth versus loyalty, individual versus community, short-term versus long-term, and justice versus mercy.  

Truth versus loyalty

Kidder’s (2006) first paradigm, truth versus loyalty, pits a person’s fidelity against the facts. An employee or leader faced with this dilemma paradigm must choose between acting according to the facts or standards and allegiance to a person or entity. The impact of this dilemma paradigm can cause relate to the relationship between the individual and the other entity. Employees who are loyal may preserve one relationship but destroy another.

Individual versus community

Individual versus community is the second dilemma paradigm. Individualism prioritizes the needs of an individual independently of the collective. In opposition, the community’s need outweighs those of any individual. In this dilemma paradigm, these two concepts directly oppose one another. The welfare of an individual conflict with the group’s welfare, and it may damage that group in several ways (SAIS, 2011).

Short-term versus long-term

Often business leaders are pressured to make a decision with short-term and long-term effects. This decision can either have short-term benefits but long-term trade-offs or long-term benefits and short-term ramifications. This is the third type of dilemma paradigm. This paradigm can cause serious implications to a short-sighted leader. Making decisions based on the current condition without assessing long-term consequences can become a potential future risk.

Justice versus mercy

The final dilemma paradigm is justice versus mercy—where expectation and exception are opposition forces (SAIS, 2011). Justice requires that rules and principles should hold despite the circumstances. It is blind to emotions and demands impartiality. However, mercy asks that a person seek benevolence and care for individuals on a case-by-case basis. Mercy does not completely ignore the unethical issue; it provides an alternative to the rules outlined by justice. Therefore, the justice versus mercy dilemma paradigm battles between leniency and fairness.  

Without proper guidance, leaders and employees can regularly be conflicted with these moral quandaries. A team can be impacted if leadership favors one “right” over the other. There can also be disputes among team members if a leader or manager tends to show favoritism of one “right” to some employees versus another employee. If a manager or leader shows favoritism to certain employees, this can raise another ethical issue.

Leaders who understand these different paradigms become cognizant of situations that pose right versus right dilemmas. Then, they can weed through the contextual details—taking into account the situation’s complexities—to dilute the dilemma down to the heart of the matter (Kidder, 1996). These types of ethical judgments involve leaders compromising and balancing moral virtues to deduce an outcome that is as morally and ethically responsible as possible.

Moral Courage

Moral courage is the final and most arduous of the three barriers. It is the struggle leaders and employees battle when faced with ethical dilemmas that could harm their reputation, emotional well-being, or self-esteem (Kidder & Born, 2002). These dilemmas are mental challenges that test the core of a person’s moral values and force one to speak truth to power. Moral courage involves assessing values, taking risks, and enduring hardships (Mullane, 2009). People are discouraged by the “enduring hardship” aspect of moral courage—this part aids in the unwillingness to exhibit it more frequently. However, Mullane (2009) stated that leaders must be steadfast in their decision and prepare for any consequences that follow. Messick (2006) identifies three common situations that require moral courage: resisting immoral authority, risking unpopularity, and whistleblowing.

Resisting Immoral Authority

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Popularized by Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, this quote inhibits an authority figure’s power. People tend to follow those who they perceive to have legitimate authority. If that authority figure decides to make an unethical decision, it could impact their followers—involving them in immoral conduct. Blind obedience can put an employee in an unethical situation, leading to unfortunate consequences. This blind obedience was illustrated in Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority (Milgram, 1963). 

Obedience to authority occurs when people who want to please those in charge receive a reward or self-preservation. Four choices can be implemented in these situations to resist immoral authority: implore moral courage, follow orders, negotiate a moral outcome, or leave the situation (Messick, 2006). These choices fall into rule-based, role-based, or value-based decision-making (Kelman & Hamilton, 1989).

Risking Unpopularity

Standing for what is ethical may mean standing alone. Exercising moral courage may mean advocating for a decision not shared among the majority. This can mean contending with superiors and peers when they offer an unethical decision. Therefore, leaders and employees with the gumption to advocate for ethical judgments could be vital to the organization (Prentice, 2006). Prentice (2006) reminded us that people often keep quiet to conform to those around them. Leaders must struggle with feeling solitary or taboo to ensure they are executing moral leadership (Wedell-Wedellsborg, 2019). Moral leadership builds trust and integrity in the leader and the workplace.


Suppose a superior or peer is caught in an unethical act. What decision do you make? In this scenario, Messick (2006) suggested two options: participate or report. By participating, you are not only condoning the unethical behavior, but you are now a willing accomplice. Reporting the incident is known as whistleblowing. Whistleblowing is the third type of situation that arises that requires moral courage. It means intentionally revealing unethical actions to the public to alert outside organizations of their wrongdoings (Mullane, 2009).

According to Messick (2006), two factors discourage whistleblowing: determining if truly unethical and believing nothing would come of it. Illegal actions are clear to call out; however, practices with ethical ambiguity cause hesitation. Conversely, if the actions are deemed unethical, bringing them to someone’s attention may be futile. Whistleblower Protection Programs have protected employees from retaliation when reporting workplace violations.    

Without moral courage in the workplace, two outcomes will constantly occur: losing employees and ethical infractions. Moral courageous employees who are uncomfortable making unethical decisions will opt for environments where their morals are not regularly challenged. Otherwise, employees will conform to unethical behavior, and the snowball of moral corruption will persist.

Creating an environment where moral courage is supported empowers employees to have crucial conversations with superiors and peers to keep their morals intact. Leaders must ensure that structures are in place to make individuals accountable and encourages safe behavior. This creates clear policies and procedures about what to do if faced with unethical behavior. Organizations should consider outsourcing ethical issues to a third party to prevent inaction or unethical behavior when issues are reported.

Other Barriers

In addition to the three barriers Messick (2006) described, other reasons dissuade employees from making ethical judgments. Two alternative barriers are a lack of ethical knowledge and professional immaturity. It is assumed that everyone has the same ethical code. However, failure to ensure that all employees abide by the same ethical standards can lead to catastrophic ethical errors. Organizations should create policies and conduct training to guarantee that all employees are aware of the ethical principles and values the company supports. Not attending training does not excuse an individual from knowing and abiding by the company’s code of ethics. Employees should take the imitative to familiarize themselves with the policies to maintain their ethical and moral obligations. Good ethical principles should be practiced daily to affirm decisions are aligned.

As employees mature, they learn to make better choices. Early in one’s career, many choices may be made impulsively and without direction (Colemen, n.d.). Additionally, inexperienced employees may lack the moral courage it takes to stand up to superiors or peers. It is recommended that companies foster safe spaces where employees of all levels are encouraged to discuss and call out unethical behavior.


Organizations that focus on maintaining moral and ethical standards help to eliminate questionable decisions. However, a situation will inevitably present itself—possibly in the realm of right-versus-right. Leaders must educate themselves on each potential barrier’s causes and effects. Keeping personal ethics and morals at the forefront of every decision aids in making ethical decisions.


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