What happens when a leader behaves unethically? The follower’s perceptions about the leader’s trustworthiness and their future interactions with said leader become strained and trust is eroded. It seems intuitive.
Yet, consider a number of striking examples from real life - Enron, Worldcom, Tyco and City Harvest Church in Singapore. The leaders of these organisations would not have been able to carry out their ethically questionable ventures on as grand a scale and for as long as they were able to, without the daily support from many employees.
Unethical behaviour can also take place on a simpler scale. It can be as insidious as falsifying receipts for business expenses or making racially insensitive jokes. They can also be more common behaviours that are directed toward specific employees, such as verbal abuse or taking credit for subordinates’ ideas. While there are followers who will react negatively, begin to feel less connected to their leaders and organisations, and eventually even leave the organisation, in reality, in the corporate world, many unethical leaders continue to thrive and enjoy the support of their employees.
My team and I undertook three studies to better understand the phenomenon of why an employee would continue to support a leader even after he has witnessed the leader acting unethically.
One reason might be self-interest. Followers may fear losing their jobs, or may benefit in some way from the leader’s behaviour. For example, the unfair treatment of another staff may be a result of or lead to favouritism towards themselves.
Our research on the reactions of a range of participants to unethical leadership behaviors shows that something more complex can also come into play. Some participants have a greater tendency to morally disengage themselves from unethical leaders’ actions. That is, they tend to excuse or justify the questionable behaviour in ways to make the behaviour seem more morally acceptable.
One can do so in three ways.
People can restructure the behaviour to appear less wrong. An employee might use euphemistic labeling to rename an action or its consequences, for example, by referring to bullying behavior as “being assertive”. Similarly, an employee might compare the action to a worse one. For example, one may dismiss a questionable receipt as “a small overstatement” as opposed to describing it as outright theft.
Secondly, one can morally disengage by denying the offender’s responsibility and externalising the blame instead. For example, one might blame the unethical action in question on a higher level authority figure or “the system” for allowing the action to occur. People may even blame victims for the consequences that befall them, such as for putting themselves in the way of harm or for being naive enough to fall for such a scam. Such rationalisations obscure the leader’s moral agency.
Thirdly, individuals can minimise the perceived negative effects of an action on the victim. For example, an employee might argue that a victim was not actually harmed by the action in question, or even dehumanise the victim by claiming s/he “deserved it”.
By framing the leader’s unethical behaviour in ways that negate its implications, followers reduce its perceived severity. Furthermore, once the behaviour is “normalised”, followers’ distrust towards the leader is minimised, which consequently makes them more willing to support an otherwise ethically questionable leader.
This idea was validated across four studies conducted in Singapore and in the U.S. – three psychological experiments with 344 undergraduate students from three different universities and a field study surveying 228 leaders and their employees across industries from both countries.
This has important implications in today’s economic and political arena where liberal or vested voices offer many alternative interpretations of questionable behaviour.
Unethical business practices are pervasive. The news is filled with reports of organisations’ top leaders engaging in fraud, treating their employees poorly and ignoring their customers’ safety and well-being. United Airlines’ recent violent de-boarding of a passenger is a case in point. It is probably not the first time such an incident has happened, nor would have such strident action sat well with all members of its staff, but allegiance to authority, corporate rules, and legalistic rationalisation allowed its perpetuation.
Individuals need to be aware that their unquestioning loyalty and commitment to a higher good or order combined with ones’ tendency to morally disengage can make them distrust less and more susceptible to enabling the unethical acts of others, and even emboldening them to commit unethical acts of their own. In the case of City Harvest Church, swathes of people were aware of, and in fact, supported a complex system of illegal monetary transfers.
In the extreme, moral disengagement has been shown to enable severe moral atrocities such as physical violence and genocide. Last weekend alt-right followers drove a van into a group of protesters, killing and maiming many. Post-event, some cited President Trump’s remarks as a major success for their movement. What Charlottesville shows us is that the effects of a leader’s behaviour and rhetoric is more far-reaching – it stokes followers, simply because they have first justified their set of ethics by their leader’s.
Our research on the effects of moral disengagement on trust and helping behaviour also sheds light on the extent of real shared culpability. Even the most powerful leaders in the corporate or political arenas cannot act solely on their own. The inherent scope and complexity of modern organisations and politics requires that leaders receive support from many employees and stakeholders. When a scandal as big as Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme is uncovered, it is easy to blame just the founders or top management. Yet, as noted by analysts, there would have been many within the organisation and stakeholders outside of the organisation who knew what the real market prices were for the securities being traded and yet continued to facilitate the transactions (Glovin, Voreacos, & Scheer, 2009). In these and other cases, employees did not necessarily directly engage in unethical behaviour, but nonetheless contributed to its perpetuation by continuing to help their leaders as part of their routine everyday tasks.
Our research joins the growing discussions highlighting that unethical behaviour in the workplace is not simply a matter of rooting out a few “bad apples”. Our results suggest that it is also important to look at employees across the entire organisation to understand how the system as a whole can fail to uncover and curb the escalation of leaders’ unethical behaviour.
As a society, we need to be more aware of the power, pervasiveness, and ease of using moral disengagement to rationalise away seemingly minor ethical infractions. This in turn increases our trust in unethical leaders and detracts us from the destructive effects of unobstructed unethical behavior. When followers too give themselves the same moral latitude, we descend onto a very slippery slope.
About the author
Fong Keng-Highberger is an assistant professor of Strategy, Management and Organisation at Nanyang Business School, NTU. The research project mentioned in this article is co-authored with Ryan Fehr of the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington and Ashely Fulmer of the department of psychology at the National University of Singapore.
This commentary was published in The Business Times on 11 August 2017.