Moore, C., Mayer, D. M., Chiang, F. F. T., Crossley, C., Karlesky, M. J., & Birtch, T. A. (2019). Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 123-145.
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.
Here is the Conclusion:
Our research points to one of the reasons why 'cleaning house' of morally compromised leaders after scandals may be less effective than we might expect. The fact that leadership affects the extent to which subordinates morally disengage means that their influence may be more profound and nefarious than one might conclude given earlier understandings of the mechanisms through which ethical leadership elicits its outcomes. One can eliminate perverse incentives and remove poor role models, but once a leader shifts how subordinates cognitively construe decisions with ethical import, their continuing influence on employee misconduct may be harder to undo.
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