Ethical leadership can have negative consequences, researchers say

February 7, 2018 by Eric M. Eckert, Baylor University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Ethical leadership is a good thing, right?

Certainly, management experts say. But ethical can have negative consequences, too, according to new research from management faculty in Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business.

A new Baylor study published in the Journal of Business Ethics reveals that ethical leadership compounded by job-hindrance and supervisor-induced stress can lead to employee deviance and turnover. The research reflects the thoughts of 609 employees who were surveyed across two studies.

"If someone is an ethical leader but induces stress, our research shows that his or her employees will feel less support," said lead author Matthew Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management. "Thus, employees who do not feel supported are more likely to consider leaving their jobs or engage in workplace deviance - things like arriving late to work, daydreaming, not following instructions or failing to be as productive as they could be."

Quade said that ethical leadership is a good thing and often beneficial in terms of resources. An example would be a trusted supervisor who listens to her employees and has her employees' best interests in mind.

The trouble comes, he said, when supervisor-induced stress or job-hindrance stress enters the picture.

"When those stressors are added, there is a depletion of resources," Quade explained. "Many of the gains or benefits from ethical leadership are negated."

What does stress-inducing ethical leadership look like?

Quade said it could be as simple as supervisors setting expectations too high or, in the interest of "following all the rules," not allowing for any deviation from a process, even if a shortcut, still within the bounds of behaving ethically, would deliver a desired result.

The researchers wrote: "Ethical leadership can be an exacting process of sustaining high ethical standards, ensuring careful practice and enforcement of all rules and meeting leaders' lofty expectations, all of which can consume time and energy and be perceived by employees as overly demanding or an obstacle to job performance."

As part of the study, those surveyed were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  • My supervisor makes it so that I have to go through a lot of red tape to get my job done.
  • Working with my supervisor makes it hard to understand what is expected of me.
  • I receive conflicting requests from my supervisor.
  • My supervisor creates many hassles to go through to get projects/assignments done.
  • Working with him/her thwarts my personal growth and well-being.
  • In general, I feel that my supervisor hinders my personal accomplishment.
  • I feel that my constrains my achievement of personal goals and development.

Quade said his team in no way wants to discourage ethical leadership. Research consistently shows such leadership is very beneficial, he said. But this new research shows that there are boundaries to those benefits.

"This places quite an onus on appropriately managing the stress that comes from the leader and the job, in efforts to most fully realize the potential of ethical leadership," the researchers wrote.

The study listed some tips and takeaways for organizations and leaders. They include:

  • Strike a balance between promoting ethical behavior and providing resources to help employees meet those standards.
  • Encourage employees in word and deed by reducing ambiguity in that might otherwise drain resources.
  • Model fair and .
  • Communicate efficient methods to meet standards and reduce unnecessary steps or procedures.
  • Equip and train leaders to balance the demands of leading ethically while not overburdening their employees.

Explore further: Employee volunteerism? Only if you think your boss is ethical

More information: Matthew J. Quade et al. Boundary Conditions of Ethical Leadership: Exploring Supervisor-Induced and Job Hindrance Stress as Potential Inhibitors, Journal of Business Ethics (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s10551-017-3771-4

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