Moore, C., Mayer, D. M., Chiang, and others
Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.
There has long been interest in how leaders influence the unethical behavior of those who they lead. However, research in this area has tended to focus on leaders’ direct influence over subordinate behavior, such as through role modeling or eliciting positive social exchange. We extend this research by examining how ethical leaders affect how employees construe morally problematic decisions, ultimately influencing their behavior. Across four studies, diverse in methods (lab and field) and national context (the United States and China), we find that ethical leadership decreases employees’ propensity to morally disengage, with ultimate effects on employees’ unethical decisions and deviant behavior. Further, employee moral identity moderates this mediated effect. However, the form of this moderation is not consistent. In Studies 2 and 4, we find that ethical leaders have the largest positive influence over individuals with a weak moral identity (providing a “saving grace”), whereas in Study 3, we find that ethical leaders have the largest positive influence over individuals with a strong moral identity (catalyzing a “virtuous synergy”). We use these findings to speculate about when ethical leaders might function as a “saving grace” versus a “virtuous synergy.” Together, our results suggest that employee misconduct stems from a complex interaction between employees, their leaders, and the context in which this relationship takes place, specifically via leaders’ influence over employees’ moral cognition.
Beginning of the Discussion section
Three primary findings emerge from these four studies. First, we consistently find a negative relationship between ethical leadership and employee moral disengagement. This supports our primary hypothesis: leader behavior is associated with how employees construe decisions with ethical import. Our manipulation of ethical leadership and its resulting effects provide confidence that ethical leadership has a direct causal influence over employee moral disengagement.
In addition, this finding was consistent in both American and Chinese work contexts, suggesting the effect is not culturally bound.
Second, we also found evidence across all four studies that moral disengagement functions as a mechanism to explain the relationship between ethical leadership and employee unethical decisions and behaviors. Again, this result was consistent across time- and respondent-separated field studies and an experiment, in American and Chinese organizations, and using different measures of our primary constructs, providing important assurance of the generalizability of our findings and bolstering our confidence that moral disengagement as an important, unique, and robust mechanism to explain ethical leaders’ positive effects within their organizations.
Finally, we found persistent evidence that the centrality of an employee’s moral identity plays a key role in the relationship between ethical leadership and employee unethical decisions and behavior (through moral disengagement). However, the nature of this moderated relationship varied across studies.