The Transformative Power of Moral Disengagement


The following article is meant to be complimentary to the article entitled “What To Do If You Are Being Bullied at Work“, written by Linda Crockett.  In that article, the author states  “Some may not realize they are bullying”.  This statement may be understood from a psychological concept termed moral disengagement.

In brief terms, moral disengagement is a set of psychological maneuvers that people use in order to allow themselves to participate in behaviour that is harmful to others.  Within the concept of moral disengagement, is a term called sanctions, which can be thought of as a penalty that one would apply to oneself for participating in harmful behaviour (thus, a self-sanction).  During the development of the moral self, people develop a set of standards, or rules of conduct for appropriate behaviour.  If one were to act inappropriately, there may be a penalty that goes with the behaviour, e.g., one may feel anguish, guilt or remorse.  There might also be social sanctions, i.e., your peers might not approve of your behaviour. Thus, if one engages those sanctions to a behaviour (i.e., links the sanction to the behaviour), so that there is a realization that there is a price to pay for inappropriate behaviour, one is more likely to act in-line with their moral standards (in order to prevent suffering from a penalty).

Alternatively, if one were to disengage those sanctions from inappropriate behaviour, one would not suffer the penalty.  People tend to rationalize or justify their behaviour, which makes them feel as they have done no wrong.  These rationalizations tend to diminish or sever the link between the penalty and the behaviour.  This is the basis of moral disengagement.  Additionally, the rationalizations tend to fit into categories (termed the mechanisms of moral disengagement).  

In Bandura’s discussions on moral disengagement, he suggests that moral disengagement is gradual (Bandura, 1990, p.42) and that this progressive change has a transformative power (Bandura, 2002, p.110).  Thus, people do not change from being a “good” person to “bad” person instantaneously.   People may participate in an inappropriate way and feel some anguish, but repeated enactments of that behaviour result in lesser feelings of anguish.  This is termed “a weakening of self-sanctions” or stated another way, the link between the penalty and the behaviour becomes weakened.  Bandura goes on to say “inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinized” (Bandura, 2002, p.110).  Furthermore, he suggests that “the change is usually achieved through gradual weakening of self-sanctions, during which people may not fully recognize the changes they are undergoing” (Bandura, 1990, p.42) and “people may not even recognize the changes they have undergone as a moral self ” (Bandura, 2002, p.110).

Going back to the original article, entitled “What To Do If You Are Being Bullied at Work“, written by Linda Crockett and the statement  ” Some may not realize they are bullying ” is in-line with the writings of Bandura, i.e., a change in someone’s personality may be so slight, they might not recognize the changes.  Ultimately, they might not see themselves as being bullies.

In a study done by Jenkins et. al., they reported that 90% of the participants stated that they had never bullied anyone and 10% indicated that they had bullied someone on a rare occasion, but bullying allegations were substantiated in 26% of the cases (Jenkins, 2012, p. 493).  There is a 16% disconnect between those that indicated (10%) and those that were substantiated (26%).  Furthermore, all of the participants indicated that they had participated in some form of negative behaviour in the workplace, but that these behaviours were not bullying and in fact were reasonable actions in the performance of their duties.  Thus, they were merely rationalizing their behaviour, but rationalizing the behaviour does not eliminate the effects of the bullying behaviour.

Thus, the 16% in the Jenkins study may be comprised of three types of situations: (i) those that will not identify as being bullies, (ii) those that do not recognize that they are bullies (because they have used rationalizations to justify their actions) and (iii) those that just do not see themselves as bullies, most likely because they have participated in their bad behaviour for so long without being reprimanded, that they feel as if they have done no wrong (as suggested by Bandura – inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinized).

The bottom line being, in the same way that a target can be counselled to recovery, so can a bully.  For example, for those that just don’t see their behaviour as being wrong because they have enacted the behaviour for so long, they can be taught that the behaviour is just wrong.  And for those that have rationalized their bad behaviour, they can be shown that their rationalizations are false.  In the end, most bullies can be counselled to recovery.

Terrance Sereda, 25-July-2016



(1) Bandura, A. (1990), Selective activation and disengagement of moral control, Journal of Social Issues, 46(1), pp. 27-46.

(2) Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency, Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101-119.

(3) Jenkins, M. F., Zapf, D., Winefield, H. & Sarris, A. (2012). Bullying allegations from the accused bully’s perspective. British Journal of Management, 23, 489-501.


The Transformative Power of Moral Disengagement
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