Ethical leadership certainly sounds like a good idea, but I-O psychologists will require scientific evidence before being convinced. Is ethical leadership something different from other effective leadership styles or behaviors, and does ethical leadership lead to anything positive in the workplace? New research (Ng & Feldman, 2015) has answered this question. Results show that ethical leadership is a real, distinct idea, and it can indeed lead to positive workplace outcomes that extend beyond the effects of other leadership styles.
STUDYING ETHICAL LEADERSHIP
This study was a meta-analysis, meaning it statistically combined results from many previous studies. The philosophy of meta-analysis is that combining results from many studies provides a more accurate estimation of reality than a single study in a single situation.
The researchers explain that ethical leadership occurs when leaders display appropriate and morally expected behavior in all situations. They interact ethically with the people they supervise, as well as demonstrate ethical behavior when interacting with other types of people such as their supervisors or customers. When ethical leadership is demonstrated, results show that subordinates feel more satisfaction with the leader, perceive that the leader is more effective, and have greater trust in the leader.
The authors also found that ethical leadership is related to many positive organizational outcomes, including increased job satisfaction, increased motivation, better task performance, more citizenship behavior (this is when employees go beyond formal job descriptions) and lower counterproductive work behavior (e.g., rudeness or sabotage).
Ethical leadership was also associated with lower job strains (or elements of a job that cause stress), increased commitment, increased organizational identification, and lower turnover.
ETHICAL LEADERSHIP LEADS TO TRUST
The authors found a factor that explains why all of the positive outcomes listed above were associated with ethical leadership. The authors used advanced statistical models to show that ethical leaders cause their subordinates to trust them more. For example, imagine a leader admits to making a mistake and marginalizing the work of an employee. The leader says that she will not make the same mistake in the future. Because the leader is seen as an ethical leader, the employee will be more likely to trust her and continue to have positive attitudes about the job and continue working hard. If the leader isn’t trusted, the employee might immediately make negative behavioral changes. The bottom line is that ethical leaders inspire trust, which inspires good work on the job.
Finally, the researchers show that ethical leadership can be used to predict all of the positive outcomes mentioned, even when similar psychological traits are also being used in prediction. That is to say, there is something unique about ethical leadership that is not covered by other positive leadership styles. As an example, transformational leadership, or when leaders inspire followers to believe in some greater purpose, has also been associated with positive organizational outcomes. Yet organizations are not maximizing positive outcomes by merely hiring transformational leaders. Ethical leadership predicts some significant aspect of positive performance that is not covered by transformational leadership or other similar research-supported concepts. Ethical leadership also predicts some aspect of good performance beyond what is caused by an overall ethical organizational environment. Direct supervisors need to be ethical, not just the organizational higher-ups, say the authors.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
This study uses an impressive amount of data to show that ethical leadership is a unique concept that has very positive organizational outcomes. This means, say the authors, that organizations benefit from either training managers to display ethical leadership, or hiring ethical leaders from the start. Positive leadership in other regards will not be a substitute for this, but can work in tandem with ethical leadership to allow organizations to maximize positive outcome such as increased performance and lower turnover. Because this study identified trust as the mechanism that allows ethical leadership to work, organizations can better appreciate and focus on the importance of this interpersonal element when training leaders.
Ng, T. W. H., & Feldman, D. C. (2015). Ethical leadership: Meta-analytic evidence of criterion-related and incremental validity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 948-965.