When Does Ethical Leadership Lead to Organizational Citizenship Behavior?

Does ethical leadership lead to increased organizational citizenship behavior? Ethical leadership refers to an honest, fair, and transparent leadership style. Organizational citizenship behavior (or OCB) means prosocial behavior at work such as helping fellow employees with difficult tasks or anything that goes beyond formal job descriptions to help the organization. 

The results of this research study (Kacmar, Bachrach, Harris, & Zivnuska, 2010) indicated that the presence of ethical leadership in an organization led to higher rates of OCB. This showed that when employees feel indebted to ethical leaders, they may seek to “repay” them with OCB. 


However straightforward the above findings are, they do not take into account various social and political factors that are present in most workplaces. Here is where things get interesting. Employee gender roles and perceptions of organizational politics (or POP) can influence the strength and direction of the above relationship. POP is an employee’s perception of the political environment of their workplace, so high POP would indicate a politicized work environment where employees act selfishly and are motivated by self-interest.

In terms of gender roles, social role theory (SRT) suggests that men engage in OCBs in part to increase their status and further their careers. In contrast, SRT would indicate that women engage in OCBs in part because of stronger social orientations and the desire to strengthen bonds with fellow coworkers.  

Of course, regardless of gender, some individuals are inclined to enhance their own status while others are more focused on maintaining strong social bonds. 


When looking at POP through the lens of SRT, the researchers observed some interesting outcomes. Their results showed the following:

  • In high POP work environments, females displayed significantly less OCB than in low POP work environments. For example, when the workplace is politically charged (high POP), employees are more likely to react to OCB with caution (e.g., “What are your true motives for helping me?”). Therefore, motivation by women to use OCB as a means to strengthen bonds would be ineffective and less prevalent than in work environments that were more transparent and straightforward. 
  • In high POP work environments, males displayed significantly more OCBs than in low POP work environments. For example, male employees saw OCBs as opportunities to gain status and stand apart from fellow employees in politicized and highly competitive environments (high POP). But in low POP environments, where there was more transparency in the performance evaluation process, males expected to gain less from helping their coworkers, and they displayed less OCB.


The main points behind this research are that ethical leadership and organizational context can have profound impacts on prevalence of OCB, both in general and amongst subgroups. According to the authors, this research has strong implications for business:

  • Because males were more likely to display OCB in environments that maximized their self-benefit, it would be wise for ethical leaders to go to whatever lengths necessary to convince males that OCBs are important and will be noticed (e.g., through recognition, rewards, or as part of a performance review process).
  • Because female employees were more likely to respond to ethical leadership or environments with OCB, leaders should behave as ethically as possible, especially in highly politicized work environments. Honest, transparent, and self-reflective leadership, while difficult in practice, will lead to sustainable benefits and reduce burnout in the long-run.


Kacmar, K. M., Bachrach, D. G., Harris, K. J., & Zivnuska, S. (2010). Fostering good citizenship through ethical leadership: Exploring the moderating role of gender and organizational politics. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.