Originally published October 5, 2017
While unethical behavior in organizations is often portrayed as flowing down from top management, or creeping up from low-level positions, a team of researchers suggest that middle management also can play a key role in promoting wide-spread unethical behavior among their subordinates.
In a study of a large telecommunications company, researchers found that middle managers used a range of tactics to inflate their subordinates' performance and deceive top management, according to Linda Treviño, distinguished professor of organizational behavior and ethics, Smeal College of Business, Penn State. The managers may have been motivated to engage in this behavior because leadership instituted performance targets that were unrealizable, she added.
Middle managers also used a range of tactics to coerce their subordinates to keep up the ruse, including rewards for unethical behavior and public shaming for those who were reluctant to engage in the unethical tactics.
"Interestingly, what we didn't see is managers speaking up, we didn't see them pushing back against the unrealistic goals," said Treviño. "We know a lot about what we refer to as 'voice' in an organization and people are fearful and they tend to keep quiet for the most part."
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