What are the negative organizational effects of hypocritical leaders? Late author Stephen Covey once said, “What you do has far greater impact than what you say.” A recent study (Greenbaum, Bardes, Mawritz, & Piccolo, 2015) shows that these are more than mere words of advice, but rather a warning to managers and organizations about the importance of leaders “walking the talk.”
Effective organizational leaders role-model appropriate workplace behavior; however, some leaders do not always practice what they preach. This increases the possibility that employees will experience negative workplace outcomes. That is, when leaders themselves engage in behavior that subordinates are not supposed to mimic, subordinates may perceive the leader as hypocritical, leading to an increased likelihood of job turnover.
Justice Expectations & Supervisor Undermining
Most organizations have enacted a code of conduct that outlines formal rules for how employees should behave in the workplace. It is also common for organizations to have less formal structures that help inform appropriate work behavior, such as office culture or norms. When supervisors expect employees to show respect and social sensitivity to each other, the supervisor is demonstrating an interpersonal justice expectation.
However, it is possible for a supervisor to expect employees to demonstrate interpersonal justice with one another, even when the supervisor does not exhibit similar behavior. Supervisors who engage in undermining behavior, by definition, do not exhibit interpersonal justice. Examples of supervisor undermining include belittling employees for their ideas, spreading rumors about employees, and putting down employees when they have questions about work procedures. These examples illustrate how supervisor undermining is a form of social injustice, because supervisors are not respecting employees’ ideas nor being socially sensitive to their needs.
Supervisor undermining alone can lead to negative outcomes for employees, such as lower job satisfaction and trust, as well as an increase in depression and counterproductive work behavior. Therefore, organizations are encouraged to take proactive measures to ensure that individuals in supervisory roles are not abusing their power by disrespecting their subordinates.
A recent two-part study that utilized both survey and scenario-based designs examined the relationship between justice expectations and supervisor undermining. The results showed that supervisor undermining is especially harmful when supervisors also set an expectation for others to engage in interpersonal justice. That is, when leaders expect others to engage in interpersonal justice, but do not personally engage in these behaviors, they are viewed as hypocritical. Therefore, it is the combination of both supervisor undermining and high expectations for interpersonal justice that results in the perception of leaders as hypocrites.
The second part of the study examined how perceptions of leader hypocrisy affect employees’ turnover intentions. Employees who perceived their leaders to be hypocritical had higher intentions to leave the organization than employees who did not perceive their leader as hypocritical.
This study has many practical implications for the workplace. First, it is not enough for a supervisor to promote interpersonal justice. Supervisors who have high interpersonal justice expectations but do not align their behavior with these expectations demonstrate to employees that they do not “walk the talk.” In turn, employees who view their leaders as hypocritical may be more motivated to leave the organization, increasing organizational costs associated with recruitment and training.
The authors also suggest that leaders may be unaware of the behavior that contributes to perceptions of “bad” leadership. They may also underestimate the degree to which subordinates look to leaders for example behavior. Therefore, organizations would benefit from monitoring supervisors’ behavior as well as their interpersonal relations with subordinates. Ensuring that leaders are practicing what they preach will yield more positive outcomes for employees, and prevent good employees from leaving organizations.