Ethical leadership can have negative consequences.

Posted on under Today's research

A new study has found that coupled with stress, ethical leadership can lead to employee deviance and turnover.

Certainly, management experts say that ethical leadership is a good thing—how could it be otherwise? But ethical leadership can have negative consequences, too, according to this research.

The study, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, reveals that ethical leadership compounded by job-hindrance stress 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 the lead author. “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.” Or, of course, accident prone. A ton of research—much of which is in previous TRs—has linked elevated stress levels to accidents.

The researchers note that ethical leadership is a good thing and often beneficial in terms of employee resources. An example would be a trusted supervisor who listens to her employees and has her employees’ best interests in mind.

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

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

What does stress-inducing ethical leadership look like?

The lead researcher 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 supervisor constrains my achievement of personal goals and development.

The researchers said they in no way want to discourage ethical leadership. Research consistently shows such leadership is very beneficial. 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 ethical dilemmas that might otherwise drain resources.
  • Model fair and ethical behavior.
  • 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.

So what? I have to confess some bewilderment concerning this study, even though I believe it is a really important one. Surely not leading in the ways that they advise is unethical? Ethics, it seems to me from the volume of research on the subject—including our own—are about the way one behaves towards other beings (human and otherwise).

We set ethical standards because we want to increase the level of cooperation within our band, our tribe, our culture. Making it difficult for an employee to do his or her job and at the same time setting high standards is hardly behavior liable to induce cooperation. I would strongly argue (OK, OK, debate!) that to increase the stress level in any workplace—even unwittingly—is in itself unethical behavior. After all that stress may lead to the workers suffering heart attacks, cancer, depression, or anxiety (even PTSD) if not immediately then at some stage in their lives (research shows that acute stress, even over the short-term, can cause heart attacks decades after the event—not to mention being a direct cause of problems their descendants may have for several generations).

Readers of TR might remember an earlier study which showed that constantly behaving ethically drained the neural system of glutamate leaving people with higher levels of cortisol at the end of the day. This meant that they tended to be abusive or unethical to those around them. The example given was of a law partner who is scrupulously ethical with his or her clients and then becomes a bully or an abuser to his or her team. It would seem we have a finite capacity to be ethical or to collaborate. However, the earlier researchers suggested that a snack at frequent intervals might well raise a leader’s glutamate level and thus their level of ethical behavior.

What now? A more robust discussion of exactly what constitutes ethical leadership is needed at all levels of our increasingly disjointed society. It needs to be more than just a “nice to have.” This study is a great first step.