How Ethical Leadership Drives Performance

Topic(s): ethics, job performance, leadership
Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior (2010)

Article: The relationship between ethical leadership and core job characteristics
Authors: R.F. Piccolo, R. Greenbaum, D.N., Den Hartog, R. Folger

Reviewed by: Benjamin Granger

Job characteristics can affect employee motivation and performance. Indeed, job characteristics such as autonomy (degree of discretion employees have over their work) and task significance (degree to which work tasks have a meaningful impact on others) are well known to predict positive workplace outcomes such as employee satisfaction and performance.


Importantly, a recent study by Piccolo et al. (2010) suggests that ethical leadership is one factor that contributes to these job characteristics.

So what does ethical leadership entail? The authors explain that ethical leaders focus on moral values and fairness in decision making, consider the impact of organizational decisions on the outside world, and clearly communicate to employees how their actions at work contribute to the overall goals of the organization. Basically, ethical leaders help give meaning to their employees’ work and ensure that organizational decisions are based on sound moral values.

The authors argue that ethical leadership should influence the actual (or objective) autonomy and task significance of their employees’ jobs, and not just employees’ perceptions of their jobs (although they suggest that this is likely as well). The authors found that employees who perceive their supervisors to be ethical occupy jobs rated higher in job significance and autonomy by their coworkers (which is a more objective measure of job characteristics). Additionally, employees in jobs rated high in task significance put forth more effort on the job and ultimately engage in better task performance and more organizational citizenship behavior (OCB).


The bottom line is that leaders who operate ethically lead more productive workforces. They do this, at least partially, by increasing the significance of their employees’ work. From a slightly different perspective, these findings imply that employees respond quite favorably to ethical leadership and thus want to have a positive impact on the world around them.


Piccolo, R.F., Greenbaum, R., Den Hartog, D.N., & Folger, R. (2010). The relationship between ethical leadership and core job characteristics. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 259-278.Pic