Motivated to disengage: The ethical consequences of goal commitment and moral disengagement in goal setting

David T. Welsh, Michael D. Baer, Hudson Sessions, Niharika Garud

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


A growing literature has suggested that high performance goals can have unintended consequences within organizations as employees engage in unethical behavior to achieve outcomes associated with goal attainment. Extending research on the dark side of goal setting, we suggest that high performance goals not only create a desire to achieve a particular outcome but also alter moral reasoning processes related to goal attainment. Integrating goal-setting theory with motivated moral reasoning, we hypothesize an indirect effect of high performance goals on unethical behavior via state moral disengagement. We also examine goal commitment—which tends to amplify the relationship between high goals and performance—as a key boundary condition associated with this indirect effect. We build this conditional indirect effect model across three studies conducted in the field and the laboratory. Our results provide new insight into both when and why high goals can facilitate moral disengagement and unethical behavior within organizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-677
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Organizational Behavior
Issue number7
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • behavioral ethics
  • goal commitment
  • goal setting
  • moral disengagement
  • unethical behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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