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How Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development Can Be Applied to Business

Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

How Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development Can Be Applied to Business

How Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development Can Be Applied to Business

How Does Kohlberg’s 6-Stage Theory of Moral Development Apply to the Business World?

When we think of Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development, we normally think of the moral development of young children as they learn to integrate into the world around them. While this early childhood development is the main area where Kohlberg’s theory of moral development can be applied, this theory can be applied to other areas, including the business world, as well. Though your employees are certainly all adults, they may fit into different levels of moral development as employees, based on Kohlberg’s six-stage model.

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development

A Quick Explanation of Kohlberg’s Theory

Kohlberg’s six-stage theory of moral development offers an explanation of the different developmental milestones that people reach in their moral development. This model breaks moral development into three levels, and a total of six stages. Traditionally, Kohlberg’s theory states that a person’s moral growth begins in early childhood and continues in stages throughout their life. While this theory has traditionally been used as a means of understanding the moral development of children, it can also be used by business owners to better understand and manage their employees.

If you aren’t familiar with Kohlberg’s theory, you may wish to read this quick explanation of the six stages of moral development, according to Lawrence Kohlberg.

Level 1: Pre-Conventional Morality

Level 1, or Pre-Conventional Morality, consists of stage 1 and stage 2.

In the traditional view of Kohlberg’s theory, in stage 1, children tend to obey the rules only to avoid punishment. Have you experienced employees in your company who fit this description?

Children in stage 2 behave in a way that is mainly concerned with what other people can do for them. They tend to follow rules out of self-interest. Perhaps some of your current or past team members display this type of behavior in the work place.

Level 2: Conventional Morality

In Kohlberg’s model of moral development, children typically reach the level 2, Conventional morality, between ages 10 and 13, though it is thought that many individuals never develop past this level in adulthood. This level includes Stage 3 and Stage 4.

In stage 3, children begin to evaluate morality based on the motives behind another person’s behavior. In this stage, an individual is capable of taking different circumstances into consideration when deciding if an act is or is no moral. In this stage, individuals often want to help others, are able to judge the intentions of other people, and begin to develop their own ideas about morality.

At stage 4, individuals become more concerned with respecting authority, maintaining social order, and doing their duty within society. At this stage of moral development, an individual considers an act to morally wrong if it harms others or if it violates the law or the rules.

Level 3: Post-Conventional morality

In Kohlberg’s model, some individuals may reach level 3, Post-Conventional morality, by early adolescence or young adulthood, though it is theorized that many individuals never reach this level. Level 3 consists of stages 5 and 6. Perhaps some of your employees will have reached this level.

In stage 5, individuals begin to value the will of the majority and the well-being of society as a whole. While people at this stage can recognize that there are times when human need and the law are conflicted, they often believe that society is better off when people follow the law.

By stage 6, individuals become more concerned with what they personally feel is just, even if it is in conflict with the law. At stage 6, people tend to act according to their own internalized standards of morality, even when it is in conflict established laws or workplace rules.

New hires are often eager to please their new boss, but their main motivation may come from avoiding trouble and reaching their own personal career goals.

New hires are often eager to please their new boss, but their main motivation may come from avoiding trouble and reaching their own personal career goals.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional) and Your Employees

In a business setting, the pre-conventional level represents the behavior of many new employees when they are first hired in to a new company. These new employees are often afraid of pleasing their new boss and work hard to complete their duties without causing problems for their new coworkers. As a new hire, many employees may be afraid of overstepping boundaries and of accidentally breaking a rule, especially if they are still in a probationary period.

Stage 1 of level 1 corresponds to those employees who may be overly concerned with avoiding punishment, especially when they are new to a company. There is some overlap here with stage 2 of level 1, in which new employees try their best because they know it is in their best interest to present themselves as reliable early on in their new position.

At level 2 of moral development, employees become more invested in company culture and their place within the company's social framework.

At level 2 of moral development, employees become more invested in company culture and their place within the company's social framework.

Level 2 (Conventional) and Your Employees

As employees become more comfortable in their role, they will move on to the conventional level. Employees at this level are still highly motivated by their own career goals, but they also start to care more about the overall good of the company. At stage 3 of level 2, employees will also start to value their place in the social framework of the company, and how their work contributes to the goals of the organization. In this stage, employees start to become more motivated to help coworkers out of a desire to meet the company’s goals, rather than purely out of self-interest.

As an employee progresses into stage 4 within level 2, they become more invested in company culture. They will become more concerned with respecting their boss and higher-ups within the company, and with maintaining their social standing within the company and within their department.

Employees who have reached level 3 in their moral development can a great source of motivation and improved morale for the rest of your team.

Employees who have reached level 3 in their moral development can a great source of motivation and improved morale for the rest of your team.

Level 3 (Post-Conventional) and Your Employees

It is possible that some of your employees may have reached level 3, the post-conventional level. These employees are usually those who have been with the company the longest and are often found in managerial roles. These employees are highly valuable, as they are just as concerned with the overall good of the company as they are with their own personal career goals. These employees can help to set the pace for company culture and help to make your company a workplace that attracts the best talent.

Those employees in stage 5 of level 3 can recognize when company policies may not best serve all of their coworkers, but overall, they will diligently uphold company policies. Employees who reach stage six may become the best advocates for your other employees. They are highly concerned with the well-being of their coworkers, as well as the well-being of the company. These employees are a valuable asset to your team if you are lucky enough to have them with your company.

Understanding and applying Kohlberg's 6-stage model of moral development to your management style can help you to more effectively manage your team.

Understanding and applying Kohlberg's 6-stage model of moral development to your management style can help you to more effectively manage your team.

How to Use Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development to Better Manage Your Employees

By recognizing the different stages of moral development in your employees, you can better meet your employees were they’re currently at and help to manage them in a way that makes them the best that they can be. Some of your new hires may enter your organization at different stages, while others may never progress past certain stages. If you understand where your employees are at, you can use this understanding to better manage your team and make your organization one with a company culture that attracts the best quality candidates. This knowledge may help you to enact company policies that best meet the needs of your current and prospective employees and help them to better achieve your company’s goals.

© 2019 Jennifer Wilber

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