Moral licensing is when doing something that improves or strengthens our positive self-image makes us worry less about the implications of another “immoral” behavior. This makes it more likely that we make “immoral” choices. When discussing software development the word ‘immoral’ could be construed as over the top. A better term might be overly convenient, ad-hoc or perhaps undisciplined. An understanding of moral licensing is important. As change agents we are often have to understand behavior so we can help teams and organizations deliver more value. For example in some cases, it might be possible to confuse moral licensing with passive aggressive behavior. The remedies these different kinds of behavior are very different. Moral licensing is a real problem that that can disrupt progress in an agile transformation (or any other behavior change).
How many times have you heard “I will reach out to the business and solicit a product owner for our next sprint, but for now . . .” And then watched as a proxy product owner was assigned rather than someone from the business. You can substitute, “we will start doing stand-up meetings tomorrow; however, those meeting begin with management assigning tasks” or any number of long litany of good choices followed by a poor process choice. If we think of this a form of unconscious accounting, making the right choice provides positive capital, making it possible to spend some of that capital. This is the same behavior you may have experienced the last time you made a New Year’s Resolution. Have you ever committed to losing weight, to exercise or sleep more in the New Year, but before starting went to one more big party or pulled one last all-nighter? Moral licensing is a bit of mental gymnastics that provides the mental cover for those choices. Any act or promise to act that is perceived to be “good,” “disciplined,” or “moral” can license can illicit the feeling that a reward for being so righteous is deserved.
Wrestling with moral licensing in Agile or process changes begins with removing the good/ bad labels so that behavior/reward cycle is not triggered. A second potential solution is to provide a set of choices that are all acceptable to help guide progress. This option can seem a bit manipulative if the pallet of choices are shallow or condescending. Offering a feast of carrot sticks instead of chocolate chip cookies as a reward for committing to diet is probably not going to be well received. A third choice for muting the possible impact of moral licensing is coaching. Coaches can help bring the choices that are being made out into the light so that practitioners consider their choices and the value of each. In the end, we would like those we are helping to transform to not have to make choices between doing a stand-up or not doing a stand-up or between having a product owner from the business or a casual stand-in from the development team.