Topic: Ethics, Leadership
Publication: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Article: How low does ethical leadership flow? Test of a trickle-down model.
Author: D.M. Mayer, M. Kuenzi, R. Greenbaum, M. Bardes, R. Salvador
Featured by: Benjamin Granger
Past research has shown that organizational leaders play a substantial role in influencing the behaviors of their subordinates (monkey see, monkey do). In fact, there is some evidence that leaders’ behaviors play an important role in predicting how likely employees engage in counterproductive or unethical behaviors.
In an effort to better understand how and why ethical (or unethical) executive behaviors influence subordinate behaviors, Mayer, Kuenzi, Greenbaum, Bardes, and Salvador (2009) tested a trickle-down process, wherein leader behaviors influence the behaviors of those below them.
Specifically, Mayer et al. found that executives’ ethical behaviors did indeed influence employees’ deviant and counterproductive behaviors, albeit indirectly through the behaviors of middle managers and supervisors. In other words, it appears that top managers’ ethical behavior directly influences the behavior of middle level supervisors who then influence the behavior of the employees below them.
But why do top managers’ ethical behaviors affect employees’ behaviors? Mayer and colleagues suggest that managers and supervisors serve as models that employees follow and emulate.
Since the behavior of top executives has important implications for both positive and negative employee behaviors, initiatives intended to improve ethics in organizations should start at the very top. Thus, Mayer and colleagues suggest that it may be useful to select managers based on integrity, concern for others, and moral standards.
In addition, another option is implementing ethics training programs for middle and top managers. Therefore, like many other things, leadership behavior does appear to flow downhill!
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 Decisions Processes, 108, 1-13.