When Enlightened Rhetoric Harms the Team
The High Cost of Moral Dissonance
Last week I wrote about sustainable restaurants in Copenhagen protecting the planet with green meals, which is laudable, while treating their workers as an exploitable resource, which is not. I noted a similar phenomenon in a number of US tech companies, whose commitment to sustainability at every stage of their supply chain falls short when it comes to managing their people.
These companies are doling out more than extra work. They are asking their employees to work in ways that undercut the company’s stated values and misrepresents who they say they are.
Here’s how it works: by squeezing their people to achieve ever-greater productivity while also branding themselves as focused on sustainability or being great places to work––for every box we pack, we plant a tree!–– we’re in the business of delivering smiles!–– organizations create a kind of moral dissonance that risks their carefully curated branding efforts, muddies their image and creates ethical dilemmas for their people.
Asking employees to behave in a way that is at odds with the company’s professed values can lead team members to lose inspiration and emotionally disengage. It simply requires too much energy to work long hours, be highly productive and ignore the contradictions between your employer’s messaging and the actual conditions of your daily work.
This experience does not apply only to warehouse workers or those who labor in the gig economy, as author Sarah Jaffe noted in her powerful interview with Rogé Karma for Ezra Klein’s podcast.
It applies to doctors compelled to see patients in rapid succession in response to insurance company “guidelines” that ultimately serve to shovel profits toward the top, causing doctors to feel at odds with their Hippocratic Oath.
It applies to consultants recruited as the “best and brightest” who are then asked to put a positive face on large-scale firings in the name of fiscal discipline that is not applied to the senior team.
It applies to non-profit workers who are passionate about the arts yet find themselves promoting museum or gallery exhibits assembled by and named for super-wealthy individuals whose destructive business practices have made them subjects of international scandal.
It applies to service employees who are monitored to ensure that they spend as little time as possible helping customers, all the while wearing a button that touts their company’s fabulous customer service.
Over time, enduring such moral dissonance leads to an erosion of identity and self-respect. And this takes an emotional and physical toll on those who are expected to ignore the contradictions that inform their mission.
Of course, every job involves compromise and showing up for things we’d prefer not to do. Sometimes, we simply have to buck up. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
We’re talking about contradictions that undermine our sense of who we are and diminish our ability to contribute to the world in a way that aligns with our values. Such moral injury cannot be addressed by an attitude adjustment or by simply looking at the bigger picture. On the contrary: looking at the bigger picture is precisely what brings these contradictions into high relief.
That’s what happened to those restaurant workers in Copenhagen. Serving exorbitantly-priced, sustainably-harvested meals felt hypocritical given that the carbon footprint of a clientele that jetted in from far and wide obliterated any environmental advantage those low-emission meals might offer the planet. And the over-the-top emphasis on meeting customers’ every need felt demeaning, given that those cooks and servers were not having their own needs met at even a minimal level.
Organizations can benefit–– and make the world a better place–– by recognizing both the reality and the costs of moral dissonance. They might start by taking their mission and values statements more seriously, rather than outsourcing them to a communications guru or going along with the latest trend (We’ve added an E to D&I! We’re going green by 2028! ).
The idea is not simply to sound enlightened, especially when speaking about complex goals such as adopting sustainable practices. It’s rather to think carefully about how and whether the entire organization can embody its stated goals in a way that creates solidarity and helps motivate everyone.