“It all depends,” I answered, when the journalist called me with the question about the ethical behaviour of managers. He had read a news clip about research at Ghent University and wanted the opinion from experts in the field. “Off course,” the journalist replied, “but nevertheless, I want an exact position on a scale from 1-untrue to 4- true.  And the arguments. Do you want to answer? If you want, I can call back in half an hour.” I welcomed the delay and started analysing the question.

First of all, I looked up the research that the journalist mentioned by Joosten et al. (2014). Their experiments indeed show that managers under stress and without a moral compass are more inclined to bend the rules. They discriminate, withhold important information, take shortcuts. 1-0.

Secondly, there are different ethical perspectives. From the deontological point of view, intentions are what matter. As long as the manager upholds his or her moral principles, he or she acts ethically. From the teleological perspective, the manager is also responsible for the consequences of his action (Ciulia, 2006). In that way, they are responsible for the immoral behavior of their employees. If a manager says “I want you to reach the sales target one way or another”, then he or she creates the conditions for the sales representative in his or her team to bend the rules and act possibly in an immoral way. 2-0

Thirdly, one could argue that leaders are appointed in their role because of their moral capacities. They are more often confronted with dilemmas, conflicts of interest, ambiguity and should therefore be more ‘moral competent’. Selection mechanisms could prevent that managers act more often immorally. But how many managers are screened on those competencies? How many organisations really select on moral authority? And are it not characteristics as external locus of control, dominance, machiavellism that help to climb the ranks of hierarchy? Evidence shows that exactly these individual characteristics lead to more unethical intentions and behaviors (Kish-Gephart et al. 2010): 3-0.

Fourthly, power corrupts. People with power are more inclined to take social distance to people beneath them, to neglect weak signals and avoid discussion (Magee & Smith, 2013). It’s not easy to stay open and humble in a position of authority and thus, it’s fair to say that managers, because of their power, are more likely to act unfair. Typical example: a manager who condones  for him or herself an emotional outburst towards an employee.  4-0.

“I answered yes”, when the journalist called back. “It feels uneasy, because managers and employees don’t necessarily differ in moral intentions or capacities, and they are all victims of their context. If the context is egoistic, short term and bottom line focused, they will all be more inclined to bypass their conscience (Kish-Gephart et al. 2010).  Nevertheless, behaviors of managers have more consequences. They are role models, they have power, so they should be up for it. It’s one of the reasons why organisations should loosen up their hierarchy and share leadership, so that the risks of authority are more spread.”

Any comment?

- Ciulia, J. (2006). Ethics, the heart of leadership. In Maak, T. & Pless, N. (Eds). Responsible leadership. London: Routledge, 17-32.
Joosten, A., Van Dijke, M., Van Hiel, A., & De Cremer, D. (2014). Being “in Control” May Make You Lose Control: The Role of Self-Regulation in Unethical Leadership Behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(1), 1-14.
- Kish-Gephart, J. Harrison, D., Trevino, L. (2010). Bad apples, bad cases and bad barrels: meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work. Journal of applied psychology, 95 (1), 1-31.
- Magee, J., & Smith, P. (2013). The social distance theory of power. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 17 (2), 158-186

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