Ethical Leadership: How Low Does It Go?

Ethical behavior of organizational leaders has increasingly been in the spotlight.  Cases of corporate scandal underscore the importance of understanding the role of ethical (and unethical) behaviors.  By focusing on the ethical leadership within, organizations can better understand their leaders’ role and impact on subordinates’ behavior. Ethical leadership is defined as the modeling of socially acceptable behavior (e.g., integrity, concern for others) through individual actions and interpersonal relationships, and the reinforcement of such by rewarding and emphasizing ethical behavior through the use of two-way communication and decision-making with subordinates.

Why Ethical Leadership Works

Ethical leadership highlights that behavior displayed through role models (i.e., management, supervisors, co-workers) in the work environment develops the propensity for others to emulate these individuals, and leads to desired and effective organizational behavior.  Furthermore, as individuals in a work group are exposed to sanctions for inappropriate behavior – and rewards for positive behavior – they tend to model the behaviors of those who are in line with accepted behavioral norms (e.g., helping behaviors). Thus, ethical leaders influence their subordinates specifically by:
  • Serving as a model of behavior to subordinates.  Leaders who demonstrate ethical behaviors/decision-making serve as examples for others to emulate.
  • Rewarding helpful behaviors and/or punishing unethical behaviors. When leaders establish that positive behaviors are valued and unethical behaviors are not, subordinates are more likely to exhibit, or withhold, such behaviors.
  • Creating a propensity for the exchange of good behaviors. Individuals who exhibit beneficial behaviors (e.g., helping) for fellow colleagues pave the way for positive exchanges.
Thus, ethical leaders influence their subordinates’ exchange of behaviors by creating an environment where employees trust that leaders will act in ethical ways and treat them fairly.

The Trickle-down Effect

The influence of ethical leadership is indirect. It trickles down through top management and flows through supervisory leaders who influence the behavior of employees by way of direct, day-to-day interaction. Although executive leadership has a broad influence on the organization as a whole, they can also influence immediate supervisors and lower-level employees at a more personal level.  Because front-line managers generally have more immediate and close relationships with lower-level employees, the effects that executives have on lower level employees are highlighted through the impact they have on front-line managers. Therefore, supervisors can be viewed as an instrument by which the ethical leadership of upper management relates to the behaviors of employees.

Implications for Practice

Organizations can use this understanding of ethical leadership to improve the behaviors of members by:
  • Hiring leaders with strong ethical values.
Including pre-employment selection practices which foster the employment of ethical leaders by assessing integrity, moral standards, and concern for others by using integrity tests, structured interviews, or in-basket exercises with an emphasis on ethics can increase the likelihood of hiring ethical leaders.
  • Offer training to current management, supervisors, and employees.
Ethical training has tended to focus on employees, but not management. By training management on communicating the importance of ethics, reinforcing ethical behavior, and modeling ethical behavior there is a greater likelihood the effects on ethical leadership will trickle down.

Interpretation by:

Adam Bradshaw

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Mayer, D.M., Kuenzi, M., Greenbaum, R., Bardes, M. & Salvador, R.(2009). How low does ethical leadership flow? Test of a trickle-down model. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 108(1). 1-13.