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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Will You Forgive Your Supervisor’s Wrongdoings? The Moral Licensing Effect of Ethical Leader Behaviors

Rong Wang and Darius K.-S. Chan
Front. Psychol., 05 March 2019


Moral licensing theory suggests that observers may liberate actors to behave in morally questionable ways due to the actors’ history of moral behaviors. Drawing on this view, a scenario experiment with a 2 (high vs. low ethical) × 2 (internal vs. external motivation) between-subject design (N = 455) was conducted in the current study. We examined whether prior ethical leader behaviors cause subordinates to license subsequent abusive supervision, as well as the moderating role of behavior motivation on such effects. The results showed that when supervisors demonstrated prior ethical behaviors, subordinates, as victims, liberated them to act in abusive ways. Specifically, subordinates showed high levels of tolerance and low levels of condemnation toward abusive supervision and seldom experienced emotional responses to supervisors’ abusive behaviors. Moreover, subordinates tended to attribute abusive supervision, viewed as a kind of mistreatment without an immediate intent to cause harm, to characteristics of the victims and of the organization rather than of the supervisors per se. When supervisors behaved morally out of internal rather than external motivations, the aforementioned licensing effects were stronger.

Here is a portion of the Discussion

The main findings of this research have some implications for organizational practice. Subordinates have a tendency to liberate leaders’ morally questionable behaviors after observing leaders’ prior ethical behaviors, which may tolerate and even encourage the existence of destructive leadership styles. First, organizations can take steps including training and interventions to strengthen ethical climate. Organizations’ ethical climate is not only helpful to manage the ethical behaviors within the organizations, but also has impact on shaping organizational members’ zero-tolerance attitude to leaders’ mistreatments and questionable behaviors (Bartels et al., 1998).