Management Ethical Leadership
by
John Schaubroeck, Zachary W. Woessner, Bernie Malonson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0038

Introduction

Within the past fifteen years ethical leadership has become a topic of scientific inquiry, with established measures and a corpus of research and theoretical work examining antecedents and consequences. During the same period the unethical acts of organizational leaders have received increasing attention in both the commercial media and the organizational literature. A practitioner literature has emerged that presents observations of events and proposes solutions to the problem of unethical behavior among leaders. This article does not seek to review the literature on the unethical behavior of leaders; rather, it focuses on the psychological construct of ethical leadership.

Introductory Works

What exactly are the obligations of leadership? Many observers of organizations believe that leaders are obliged only to act within legal and contractual restraints, nothing more (Brown 2007). This perspective leaves out the importance that ethics and morality play in the role of the leader as one who provides for the needs of their followers. Concerns about ethical leadership span not only time but cultures as well. The study of ethics and leadership appears to be a universal concern dating back to Antiquity. In the Western world the study of ethics dates back centuries to the philosophers of ancient Greece such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; and to the European Renaissance and political philosophers such as Niccolò Machiavelli. The East has maintained its own separate traditions of ethics and leadership based on the philosophical traditions of Confucius, Sun Tzu, and others. Despite their differences, most cultures have been found to have similar understandings of various aspects of ethical leadership, such as character, integrity, collective motivation, and encouragement (Resick, et al. 2006). In its more modern incarnations, the study of ethical leadership has moved from the realm of philosophers to the domain of social science. Social scientists have seen ethical leadership as a complement to related constructs, such as character (Wright and Quick 2011). They have examined it from both managerial (Enderle 1987) and psychological (Treviño, et al. 2000) perspectives. To our knowledge, Treviño, et al. 2000 is the first work to refer to a psychological construct of ethical leadership. The modern period of more popular interest in the relationship between leadership and ethics, or more specifically in the unethical behaviors of leaders, seems to have commenced after the Enron debacle, which came to light in October 2001.

  • Brown, M. E. “Misconceptions of Ethical Leadership: How to Avoid Potential Pitfalls.” Organizational Dynamics 36.2 (2007): 140–155.

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    The author draws from the popular business press to identify and provide examples of what he sees as five popular misconceptions that leaders may hold regarding ethical practices in their leadership styles.

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  • Enderle, G. “Some Perspectives of Managerial Ethical Leadership.” Journal of Business Ethics 6.8 (November 1987): 657–663.

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    The author discusses several aspects of ethical leadership, including the specific tasks associated with being an ethical leader and being responsible for the effects of one’s decisions on the people while seeking to implement corporate goals.

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  • Resick, C. J., P. J. Hanges, M. W. Dickson, and Mitchelson, et al. “A Cross-Cultural Examination of the Endorsement of Ethical Leadership.” Journal of Business Ethics 63.4 (February 2006): 345–359.

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    The authors examine the extent to which employees in many different countries evaluated ethical leadership dimensions as being important to effective leadership. The dimensions were Character/Integrity, Altruism, Collective Motivation, and Encouragement. They concluded that the dimensions of ethical leadership have similar meaning in different societies, and also that ethical leadership in general is universally endorsed. However, they also note that the level of endorsement for particular dimensions varies across cultures.

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  • Treviño, L. K., L. P. Hartman, and M. Brown. “Moral Person and Moral Manager: How Executives Develop a Reputation for Ethical Leadership.” California Management Review 42.4 (Sum 2000): 128–142.

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    The authors interviewed executives and discovered that ethical leadership reputation was based on the executive's visibility as both a moral person and a moral manager. The authors argue that developing a reputation for ethical leadership reduces legal problems and increases employee commitment, satisfaction, and ethical conduct.

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  • Wright, T. A., and J. C. Quick. “The Role of Character in Ethical Leadership Research.” Leadership Quarterly 22.5 (October 2011): 975–978.

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    The authors provide a historical overview of the character literature and a working definition of character and character-based leadership, and they make suggestions for those scholars interested in investigating and examining the role of character-based leadership in their teaching and research.

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Theoretical Issues

This section reviews how scholars have used existing theoretical perspectives from Psychology and Management to refine understanding of relationships between ethical leadership and other variables, by reviewing, first, the differences in the conceptualizations of ethical leadership proffered by researchers and, then, the prominent theoretical perspectives, including social exchange and social cognitive theory, social identity theory, and regulatory focus theory.

Construct Definition

Brown, et al. 2005 defines ethical leadership as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making” (p. 120). Ethical leadership has been more broadly defined as a leader’s use of social influence to promote ethical conduct among followers. Ethical and unethical conduct in this context refers to behaviors that are broadly considered as acceptable and unacceptable by the group, organization, and society (Treviño, et al. 2006). As noted in Brown and Treviño 2006, the conceptualization in Brown, et al. 2005 includes both “moral manager” (behaving in a manner that encourages ethical behavior and discourages unethical behavior) and “moral person” (the leader himself or herself behaving ethically) components. Notably, when scholars write or talk about “ethical leaders” in the academic context of discussing the construct of ethical leadership, they are not simply referring to a leader who is perceived to be an ethical person or one who has not engaged (or been observed to engage) in unethical behaviors as part of his/her position. Ethical or unethical behavior on the part of the leader himself or herself is seen as important, however, because leaders who personally behave unethically create and enable harms and they are not credible proponents of ethical conduct. A recent meta-analysis of ethical leadership, Ng and Feldman 2015 finds support for ethical leadership’s effect on follower’s job attitudes, job performance, and other employee outcomes.

  • Brown, M. E., L. K. Treviño, and D. A. Harrison. “Ethical Leadership: A Social Learning Perspective for Construct Development and Testing.” Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 97.2 (July 2005): 117–134.

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    This is the seminal article that presents the first measure of ethical leadership and which remains the most popular. The article presents several studies that demonstrate how ethical leadership is related to antecedent and outcome variables.

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  • Brown, M. E., and L. K. Treviño. “Ethical Leadership: A Review and Future Directions.” Leadership Quarterly 17.6 (December 2006): 595–616.

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    Provides a review of published research related to ethical leadership, with attention to related research about ethical behavior in organizations. To this point little research had been done that directly tested ethical leadership, but the review provides solid groundwork for future research on the topic.

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  • Ng, T. W. H., and D. C. Feldman. “Ethical Leadership: Meta-analytic Evidence of Criterion-Related and Incremental Validity.” Journal of Applied Psychology 100.3 (2015): 948–965.

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    The authors conducted a meta-analysis of ethical leadership from 2000 to 2015 that demonstrated criterion-related and incremental validity of ethical leadership. Support was found for ethical leadership’s influence on job attitudes, job performance, and evaluations of leaders with trust as a mediator between ethical leadership and job attitudes and job performance.

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  • Treviño, L. K., G. R. Weaver, and S. J. Reynolds. “Behavioral Ethics in Organizations: A Review.” Journal of Management 32.6 (December 2006): 951–990.

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    Provides a narrative review of research on behavioral ethics in organizations. The review provides useful directions for future research.

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Differences among Ethical Leadership Conceptualizations

The conceptualization of ethical leadership in Brown, et al. 2005 (cited under Construct Definition) includes elements of the leader disciplining unethical behavior and rewarding ethical behavior, communicating about ethical behavior, behaving in a fair and just manner toward employees, and behaving ethically in his or her personal life. Much of the prior research has examined ethical leadership using the ten-item instrument developed in Brown, et al. 2005 (cited under Construct Definition), which draws from a social learning and transactional approach to leader-follower interactions. Others have suggested that, in addition to these transactional aspects, a broader conceptualization of ethical leadership would include the use of social power to motivate collective action (e.g., De Hoogh and Den Hartog 2008; Kalshoven, et al. 2011; Resick, et al. 2006, cited under Introductory Works), and that socialized charismatic leadership is a form of ethics-based leadership (e.g., Brown and Treviño 2006, cited under Construct Definition). For example, De Hoogh and Den Hartog 2008 asserts that ethical leaders are very transparent in their communications; they strive to clarify followers’ expectations and responsibilities and share power with them. Their conceptualization places less emphasis on the leader’s reinforcement of ethical behavior among followers and his/her personal behavior outside the organization and more on power sharing, transparency, and role clarification. Kalshoven, et al. 2011 reports on a new ethical leadership instrument that included the De Hoogh and Den Hartog 2008 dimensions of ethical leadership in addition to “concern for sustainability” and “people orientation.”

  • De Hoogh, A. H. B., and D. N. Den Hartog. “Ethical and Despotic Leadership, Relationships with Leader's Social Responsibility, Top Management Team Effectiveness and Subordinates' Optimism: A Multi-method Study.” Leadership Quarterly 19.3 (June 2008): 297–311.

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    This article reports on a multidimensional measure of ethical leadership based on a global study and contrasts it with despotic leadership. The ethical leadership dimensions included morality and fairness, role clarification, and power sharing. Their results indicate that while these measures are inversely correlated, they explain unique variance in perceived leader social responsibility and other outcomes.

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  • Kalshoven, K., D. N. Den Hartog, and A. H. B. De Hoogh. “Ethical Leadership at Work Questionnaire (ELW): Development and Validation of a Multidimensional Measure.” Leadership Quarterly 22.1 (February 2011): 51–69.

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    The article presents another new measure of ethical leadership. The authors present validation evidence for the measure. The dimensions included fairness, integrity, ethical guidance, people orientation, power sharing, role clarification, and concern for sustainability. These dimensions exhibited a variety of relationships with employee behaviors and attitudes in two employed samples.

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Theoretical Frameworks Explaining Ethical Leadership Influences

In studying ethical leadership, researchers have predominantly used three theoretical perspectives: Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory; Social Identity Theory, and Regulatory Focus Theory. Works cited in the following subsections examine how scholars have used these theoretical perspectives in an effort to better explain causes and consequences of ethical leadership.

Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory

Social exchange and social cognitive theoretical perspectives have been used as bases for predicting influences of ethical leadership on prosocial organizational behaviors, such as organizational citizenship behavior (OCB; see Podsakoff, et al. 2000) and deviant behavior. Deviant behaviors can be viewed as a form of unethical behavior because they largely concern behaviors such as relatively severe rule-breaking, law-breaking, and behaviors that harm the organization or individual members (Bennett and Robinson 2000). Put most simply, social exchange theory would suggest that people perform prosocial behaviors in order to reciprocate the goodwill they receive from their leader, and they may engage in deviant behaviors in order to balance what they perceive to be an exchange relationship that is unfavorable to them personally. Social cognitive theory would suggest that leaders who exhibit high ethical leadership are attractive role models with whom peers identify and seek to emulate and who are also persuasive advocates of prosocial behaviors, such as helping others and volunteering for extra-role duties. Whereas Brown, et al. 2005 (cited under Construct Definition) refers primarily to social cognitive theory to make predictions concerning ethical leadership. More specifically, the authors reference Bandura’s social learning theory (Bandura 1971), which is now contained within his social cognitive theory (Bandura 1986). They also expressly refer to social exchange theory in forming a basis for predicting that ethical leadership would be positively associated with “extra effort” (p. 123) (see also Mayer, et al. 2009, p. 2). From this perspective, ethical leaders are seen to shape employee beliefs and behaviors by defining expectations of appropriate conduct, clearly communicating the consequences of ethical transgressions, and generally holding themselves and their subordinates accountable for ethical conduct (Brown and Treviño 2006; Resick, et al. 2011). These findings are further supported by a meta-analytic review, Bedi, et al. 2016, in which the authors observed that followers’ positive attitudes toward leaders are positively correlated with ethical leadership. As suggested in Piccolo, et al. 2010 (cited under Job Performance), ethical leaders may convey information about the importance of aspects of the job because they imbue these aspects with greater significance for the employee. There may be a contagion effect wherein they see others among their peers as “raising their game” in this respect. These processes are broadly consistent with social cognitive theory. Hannah, et al. 2011 defines moral efficacy as the belief that one is capable of acting effectively as a moral agent. Notably, however, scholars have also considered the role of ethical leaders in promoting employees’ favorable self-perceptions, including self-efficacy, that support the “can do” (versus “want to”) influences on motivation. For example, Babalola, et al. 2018 reported that conflict resolution efficacy mediated the relationship between ethical leadership and task, relationship, and process conflict.

  • Babalola, M. T., J. Stouten, M. C. Euwema, and F. Ovadje. “The Relation between Ethical Leadership and Workplace Conflicts: The Mediating Role of Employee Resolution Efficacy.” Journal of Management 44.5 (2018): 2037–2063.

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    The authors assess the indirect relationship between ethical leadership and task, relationship, and process conflict through conflict resolution efficacy.

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  • Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1971.

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    This book presents a wide range of evidence supporting different facets of social learning theory.

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  • Bandura, A. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986.

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    This book extends social learning theory into a broader framework that includes other forms of social influence.

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  • Bedi, A., C. M. Alpaslan, and S. Green. “A Meta-analytic Review of Ethical Leadership Outcomes and Moderators.” Journal of Business Ethics 139.3 (2016): 517–536.

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    The authors report that perceptions of ethical leadership are broadly associated with favorable attitudes toward the leader, and that while follower outcomes are influenced by ethical leadership, there are larger effects on follower attitudes toward leaders.

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  • Bennett, R. J., and S. L. Robinson. “Development of a Measure of Workplace Deviance.” Journal of Applied Psychology 85.3 (June 2000): 349–360.

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    The authors present validation evidence of a new measure of workplace deviance. Workplace deviance represents counter-normative behavior, which can normally be considered counterproductive and is in many cases also likely to be seen as unethical. They distinguish interpersonal and organizational forms of workplace deviance and show that these dimensions are differentially related to a range of other variables.

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  • Brown, M. E., and L. K. Treviño. “Socialized Charismatic Leadership, Values Congruence, and Deviance in Work Groups.” Journal of Applied Psychology 91.4 (July 2006): 954–962.

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    The authors observed a negative relationship between a measure of the idealized influence dimension of transformational leadership and interpersonal and organizational forms of deviant behavior in work groups. They also found that work group members’ reports of value congruence with the organization partially mediated these relationships.

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  • Hannah, S. T., B. J. Avolio, and D. R. May. “Moral Maturation and Moral Conation: A Capacity Approach to Explaining Moral Thought and Action.” Academy of Management Review 36.4 (October 2011): 663–685.

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    This is a conceptual article in which the authors develop the concept of moral conation, which they present as the internal motivation that is the impetus for moral action. Primary dimensions include moral courage, moral ownership, and moral efficacy. These represent new and useful constructs for behavioral ethics research.

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  • Mayer, D. M., M. G. Kuenzi, M. Bardes, and R. Salvaor. “How Low Does Ethical Leadership Flow? Test of a Trickle-Down Model.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 108.1 (January 2009): 1–13.

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    This article presents two field studies of antecedents and outcomes of ethical leadership perceptions. Individual differences related to how people manage their understanding of themselves as moral individuals were related to ethical leadership perceptions. Ethical leadership was found to partially mediate the relationship between the moral identity dimensions and perceptions of justice, and relationship conflict and unethical behavior measures aggregated to the work unit level.

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  • Podsakoff, P. M., S. B. MacKenzie, J. B. Paine, and D. G. Bachrach. “Organizational Citizenship Behaviors: A Critical Review of the Theoretical and Empirical Literature and Suggestions for Future Research.” Journal of Management 26.3 (2000): 513–563.

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    This article provides a narrative review of research on organizational citizenship behavior, which is individual behavior that is not required by the job or work role but which in the aggregate ostensibly promotes organizational effectiveness. The review provides useful directions for future research.

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  • Resick, C. J., G. S. Martin, M. A. Keating, M. W. Dickson, H. K. Kwan, and A. C. Peng. “What Ethical Leadership Means to Me: Asian, American, and European Perspectives.” Journal of Business Ethics 101.3 (July 2011): 435–457.

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    This article presents findings from a qualitative study in which the authors inquired into the attributes and behaviors that managers attribute to ethical and unethical leaders. The managers were located in China, Taiwan, the United States, Ireland, and Germany. They observed that the attributes of ethical and unethical leaders differed by country around some meaningful themes.

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Social Identity Theory

Rest’s four-stage model of ethical decision making and behavior (Rest 1986; Rest, et al. 1999), includes ethical awareness, judgment, intention/motivation, and behavior. It has been a guiding conceptual framework for much of the behavioral ethics literature. Recently, Hannah, et al. 2011 (cited under Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory) has extended this model by arguing that a constellation of moral capacities provides a developmental basis for enhancing ethical cognition, motivation, and behavior. Consistent with self-verification theory, which argues that people are motivated to engage in behaviors that are consistent with their self-beliefs (Swann 1983), the authors argue that salient ethical identities enhance ethical motivation, which, in turn, is a proximal driver of ethical behavior.

  • Rest, J., ed. Moral Development: Advances in Research and Theory. New York: Praeger, 1986.

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    This book describes a theoretical framework of ethical decision making and behavior and evaluates the Defining Issues Test (DIT) developed by Rest and colleagues. They conclude that formal education is positively correlated with moral judgment, there is evidence supporting Kohlberg's higher stages, moral education programs produce modest gains, and there are no gender differences.

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  • Rest, J., D. Narvaez, M. Bebeau, and S. Thoma. “A Neo-Kohlbergian Approach: The DIT and Schema Theory.” Educational Psychology Review 11.4 (December 1999): 291–324.

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    The authors provide a brief discussion of the validity and a review of the Defining Issues Test (DIT) scale and the applicability of Kohlbergian theories in addressing issues of “macromorality,” the formal societal structures such as institutions, rules, and roles.

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  • Swann, William B., Jr. “Self-Verification: Bringing Social Reality into Harmony with the Self.” In Social Psychological Perspectives on the Self. Vol. 2. Edited by J. Suls and A. G. Greenwald, 33–66. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983.

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    The author examines the process whereby people work to ensure the stability of their self-conceptions. The author argues that some of these processes are designed to get others to see them as they see themselves, while other processes are designed to make the social environment more compatible with the sense of self.

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Regulatory Focus Theory

Neubert, et al. 2009 draws from regulatory focus theory (Brockner and Higgins 2001) in arguing that followers’ regulatory focus mediates the relationship between ethical leadership and outcomes. From the perspective of this theory, leaders communicate messages about ideals and “oughts” that shape employees’ situational regulatory focus. Brockner and Higgins 2001 argues that leaders can activate an employees’ situational regulatory focus by modeling desired behavior, using symbols, delivering explicit feedback, and encouraging self-regulation. Extending that research and theory, Shao, et al. 2011 emphasizes the role of followers’ regulatory focus as a moderator of the relationship between ethical leadership and individual outcomes. Shao, et al. 2011 develops the construct of ethical regulatory focus and instruments which measure ethical prevention focus and ethical promotion focus. The authors found that ethical promotion focus moderated the influence of ethical leadership on OCBs, whereas ethical prevention focus moderated ethical leadership’s influence on deviant behaviors.

  • Brockner, J., and E. T. Higgins. “Regulatory Focus Theory: Implications for the Study of Emotions at Work.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 86.1 (September 2001): 35–66.

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    In this conceptual article the authors review laboratory research on regulatory focus theory. Regulatory focus theory concerns motivational subsystems associated with approach and avoidance behavior. Promotion focus and prevention focus are examined as states and separately as traits. The article gives examples of the relevance of the theory for understanding and conducting research on emotions in the workplace.

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  • Neubert, M. J., D. S. Carlson, K. M. Kacmar, J. A. Roberts, and L. B. Chonko. “The Virtuous Influence of Ethical Leadership Behavior: Evidence from the Field.” Journal of Business Ethics 90.2 (December 2009): 157–170.

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    In a survey study the authors found that employees’ reports of ethical leadership were indirectly related to job satisfaction and affective organizational commitment through individuals’ perceptions of an ethical workplace climate. There was a stronger relationship between ethical leadership and ethical climate perceptions among employees who perceived high interpersonal justice, meaning they felt they were treated respectfully in the organization.

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  • Shao, P., C. J. Resick, and J. M. Schaubroeck. “Ethical Leadership and Motivation: Examining Promotion and Prevention Regulatory Foci.” Academy of Management Proceedings 2011.1 (2011).

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    The authors develop a measure of ethical regulatory focus, including a dimension of actively pursuing more ethical behavior and a dimension in which the individual seeks to prevent engaging in unethical behavior. Ethical promotion focus was found to mediate the relationship between ethical leadership and dimensions of organizational citizenship behavior (e.g., helping others).

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Empirical Issues

This section discusses the major issues that have been of interest to researchers in testing hypotheses concerning ethical leadership. Issues include the decision as to whether ethical leadership could be studied as a shared perception among followers of the same leader, and the relationships between measures of ethical leadership and measures of other leader behavior constructs. We also review the empirical literature concerning the relationships between ethical leadership and putative antecedents and outcomes. The more commonly studied outcomes include follower job performance and citizenship behaviors, employee deviance and unethical behaviors, job and organizational attitudes, psychological safety and employee voice behavior, and work unit ethical culture. We conclude by examining research on how ethical leadership is presumed to cascade down organizational hierarchies and the role that societal culture plays in understanding ethical leadership.

Shared Perception versus Relational Construct

An important distinction among leadership constructs concerns whether the leader’s behavior is expected to vary across followers, as with leader member exchange theory (Nahrgang, et al. 2009), its forebear called vertical dyad linkage theory (Dansereau, et al. 1975), and abusive supervision (Tepper 2000), or whether the construct is a composition construct (Kozlowski and Klein 2000), such that perceptions of the leader’s behavior among followers are expected to be largely shared. The ethical leadership (EL) construct definition (see Construct Definition) and the items of the most commonly used instrument (Brown, et al. 2005, cited under Construct Definition) do not suggest that EL is relational in nature but rather that it refers to general behavioral tendencies all constituents of the leader can observe. Although occasionally in published work about ethical leadership analyses are conducted entirely at the individual level (e.g., Avey, et al. 2011), it has also been considered appropriate to aggregate member perceptions to leader level and examine cross-level influences of the group mean ethical leadership on individual outcomes using HLM or some other suitable software (Walumbwa, et al. 2011, cited under Job Performance), or to conduct the analyses entirely at the group level (Mayer, et al. 2009, cited under Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory). The aggregation of ethical leadership reports to supervisory unit level is generally found to be justified by suitable levels of within group agreement such as rwg (James 1982). Overall, then, both the conceptual and the empirical work on ethical leadership is consistent with the idea of ethical leadership as a composition variable.

  • Avey, J. B., M. E. Palanski, and F. O. Walumbwa. “When Leadership Goes Unnoticed: The Moderating Role of Follower Self-Esteem on the Relationship between Ethical Leadership and Follower Behavior.” Journal of Business Ethics 98.4 (February 2011): 573–582.

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    The authors conducted a field study to investigate the relationship between ethical leadership and follower organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB) and deviant behaviors as moderated by follower self-esteem. They found that ethical leadership was positively related to OCB and negatively related to deviance, and that relationships were stronger when self-esteem was lower as compared to higher.

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  • Dansereau, F., G. Graen, and W. J. Haga. “A Vertical Dyad Linkage Approach to Leadership within Formal Organizations.” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 13.1 (1975): 46–78.

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    This is the seminal conceptual article in which the authors develop the foundations of what is now referred to as leader-member exchange theory (LMX). At that time the label as vertical dyad linkage theory (VDL).

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  • James, L. R. “Aggregation Bias in Estimates of Perceptual Agreement.” Journal of Applied Psychology 67.2 (1982): 219–229.

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    In this article the author develops an index of perceptual agreement among members of a unit and discusses its potential value for determining whether aggregation of individual reports to group level is suitable for researchers.

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  • Kozlowski, S. W., and K. J. Klein. “A Multilevel Approach to Theory and Research in Organizations: Contextual, Temporal, and Emergent Processes.” In Multilevel Theory, Research, and Methods in Organizations. Edited by K. J. Klein and S. W. Kozlowski, 3–90. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

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    In this chapter the authors introduce multilevel theory and provide a broad overview of its importance and issues. An example of the issues is identifying different types of cross-level relationships and different ways in which data from members of a unit may be understood conceptually.

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  • Nahrgang, J. D., F. P. Morgeson, and R. Ilies. “The Development of Leader-Member Exchanges: Exploring How Personality and Performance Influence Leader and Member Relationships over Time.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 108 (2009): 256–266.

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    The authors conduct a longitudinal study of 330 student dyads to examine the development of leader-member relationships from the initial interaction through the early relationship stages (the first eight weeks).

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  • Tepper, B. J. “Consequences of Abusive Supervision.” Academy of Management Journal 43.2 (April 2000): 178–190.

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    After developing the conceptual foundations of the construct, the author presents a measure. This measure is found to be uniquely related to different forms of justice perceptions and, in turn, to individual outcomes (e.g., work-family conflict, satisfaction). The author also tests the moderating role of perceived mobility opportunities in these relationships, and the expected interaction was supported in a fair number of cases.

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Relationships with Other Leadership Constructs

Prior to the active research focus on ethical leadership as a distinct construct, researchers had investigated ethical components of leader behavior. Bass and Avolio 1994 notes that there are four primary dimensions of transformational leadership—inspirational motivation, idealized influence, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation. The idealized influence dimension has an ethical component and is often incorporated in studies of ethical leadership effects in order to test the discriminant validity of ethical leadership and its ability to explain unique variance in outcomes (e.g., Mayer, et al. 2009 [cited under Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory]). The meta-analysis in Ng and Feldman 2015 (cited under Construct Definition) reports an average corrected correlation of .52 between idealized influence and ethical leadership, and a 95 percent confidence interval for the artifact-corrected effect size of .35, .60. Studies of overall transformational leadership (based on the mean of its dimensions) have observe somewhat higher correlations. Based on the meta-analysis conducted by the authors, Hoch, et al. 2018 reports that the mean corrected correlation between transformational leadership overall and ethical leadership was .70 across 20 studies, with a 95 percent confidence interval of .62, .79. (This compares with a mean corrected correlation of .76 (95% CI = .67, .85) from the Ng and Feldman meta-analysis based on thirteen studies.) Abusive supervision is found to be negatively related to ethical leadership at reasonably high levels (e.g., r = −.51; Detert, et al. 2007). It may be more useful to know the unique variance explained by ethical leadership relative to other commonly studied leadership constructs. Conductive relative weights and incremental variance in Hoch, et al. 2018 explain analyses that included ethical leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, and authentic leadership in the same analyses. The authors found that, in general, the relative regression weights for ethical leadership were near the middle, or slightly higher, relative to other leadership constructs, depending on the outcome examined, but ethical leadership correlations with employee deviance were highest among all the leadership constructs. In terms of incremental variance explained, ethical leadership explained considerable additional variance in outcomes after accounting for transformational leadership, with the exception of task engagement for which it explained 4 percent additional variance in the overall effects of these two constructs. (Additional variance examined in this context is a proportion of the total amount of variance explained by the transformational leadership when it was examined separately, not incremental variance in the outcome variables per se.) The biggest portion of the proportional incremental variance explained by ethical leadership was for employee deviance at 77 percent. Ethical leadership also exhibits quite high positive correlations with followers’ reports of leader-member exchange (Kalshoven, et al. 2011, cited under Differences among Ethical Leadership Conceptualizations; Tumasjan, et al. 2011; Walumbwa, et al. 2011, cited under Job Performance), which is consistent with the social exchange view of ethical leadership (see Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory). Thiel, et al. 2018 reports on two studies that found that ethical leadership was less strongly related to followers’ perceptions of leader-member exchange (LMX) to the extent the leader had more direct reports. .

  • Bass, B. M., and Avolio, B. J., Improving Organizational Effectiveness through Transformational Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1994.

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    This book examines the theory and practice of transformational leadership. The transformational leader encourages followers by acting as a role model, motivating through inspiration, stimulating intellectually, and providing individualized consideration to their needs and goals.

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  • Detert, J., L. K. Treviño, E. Burris, and M. Andiappan. “Managerial Modes of Influence and Counterproductivity in Organizations: A Longitudinal Business-Unit-Level Investigation.” Journal of Applied Psychology 92.4 (July 2007): 993–1005.

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    In a study of a restaurant chain, the authors found that follower ratings of their immediate leader’s ethical leadership and abusive supervision were quite highly correlated, but only abusive supervision was significantly associated with their indirect measure of employee theft derived from unexpected food loss. This result highlights the usefulness of studying both ethical and abusive leader behaviors.

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  • Hoch, J. E., W. H. Bommer, J. H. Dulebohn, and D. Wu. “Do Ethical, Authentic, and Servant Leadership Explain Variance above and beyond Transformational Leadership? A Meta-analysis.” Journal of Management 44.2 (2018): 501–529.

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    The authors present meta-analytic findings concerning ethical leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, and authentic leadership. They report on the relative regression weights of and incremental variance explained by measures of these separate constructs.

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  • Thiel, C. E., J. H. Hardy, D. R. Peterson, D. T. Welsh, and J. M. Bonner. “Too Many Sheep in the Flock? Span of Control Attenuates the Influence of Ethical Leadership.” Journal of Applied Psychology 103.12 (2018): 1324–1334.

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    Two studies that focus on how leader-member exchange may mediate the relationship among ethical leadership and job performance, organizational citizenship behavior, and production deviance. The authors found that the leader span of control (number of direct reports) moderated the relationship between ethical leadership and leader-member exchange (LMX); a larger span was linked to a weaker relationship in both studies,

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  • Tumasjan, A., M. Strobel, and I. Welpe. “Ethical Leadership Evaluations after Moral Transgression: Social Distance Makes the Difference.” Journal of Business Ethics 99.4 (April 2011): 609–622.

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    The authors report on how social distance influences ethical leadership evaluations, and how, in turn, ethical leadership evaluations affect leader-member exchange (LMX) after a leader’s moral transgression.

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Antecedents

Brown and Treviño 2006 proposes a range of personality variables that may be expected to be positively (agreeableness, conscientiousness, locus of control, capacity for moral reasoning) and negatively (neuroticism, Machiavellianism) associated with ethical leadership. Walumbwa and Schaubroeck 2009 reports that whereas neuroticism was negatively correlated with ethical leadership, when included together in the same analysis with agreeableness and conscientiousness, these variables were positively related to ethical leadership, but neuroticism was unrelated to ethical leadership. De Hoogh and Den Hartog 2008 (cited under Differences among Ethical Leadership Conceptualizations) reports that social desirability is positively associated with ethical leadership. Mayer, et al. 2009 (cited under Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory) finds that leader moral identity symbolization and internalization (Aquino and Reed 2002) were positively related to ethical leadership in two separate studies. The authors of Kalshoven, et al. 2011 (cited under Differences among Ethical Leadership Conceptualizations) examined relationships between measures of all Big 5 personality constructs and ethical leadership, with ethical leadership measured using alternative instruments. In multivariate analyses, only conscientiousness was related to the Brown, et al. 2005 (cited under Construct Definition) ethical leadership measure, whereas both emotional stability (reverse of neuroticism) and conscientiousness were related to that ethical leadership measure in their second study. Among the De Hoogh and Den Hartog 2008 (cited under Differences among Ethical Leadership Conceptualizations) dimensions of ethical leadership, which were examined in the second study, agreeability was positively related to power sharing and fairness and negatively related to role clarification. Conscientiousness and emotional stability were positively related to role clarification. A unique study of ethical leadership antecedents, Waldman, et al. 2017 assesses how neural characteristics were associated with moral belief structures, which were, in turn, linked to one’s appraisal by others as an ethical leader. Specifically, the authors observed that individuals with higher connectivity of substrates in the right hemisphere of the brain that are identified as part of the “default mode network” were positively linked to ethical leadership attributions made by subordinates or peers. They further show that characteristics of the leaders’ moral ideology partially explained this relationship.

  • Aquino, K., and A. Reed. “The Self-Importance of Moral Identity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83.6 (December 2002): 1423–1440.

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    The authors develop the constructs of moral identity symbolization, which is defined as the public aspect of moral expression and moral identity internalization and which is the more private aspect. They present validation evidence for measures of these constructs and suggest ways they may be useful for theory development and research.

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  • Brown, M. E., and L. K. Treviño. “Ethical Leadership: A Review and Future Directions.” Leadership Quarterly 17.6 (December 2006): 595–616.

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    The authors conduct a literature review focused on the emerging construct of ethical leadership and compare this construct with related concepts that share a common concern for a moral dimension of leadership (e.g., spiritual, authentic, and transformational leadership). They draw broadly from the intersection of the ethics and leadership literature and offer propositions about the antecedents and outcomes of ethical leadership.

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  • Waldman, D. A., D. Wang, S. T. Hannah, and P. A. Balthazard. “A Neurological and Ideological Perspective of Ethical Leadership.” Academy of Management Journal 60.4 (2017): 1285–1306.

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    The authors observed that neural characteristics of individuals holding formal leadership positions, as assessed by electroencephalogram in a moral stimulus setting, were negatively related to moral relativism, which was, in turn, negatively related to ethical leadership. This relationship between ideology and ethical leadership was moderated by a separate aspect of moral ideology, namely idealism.

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  • Walumbwa, F. O., and J. M. Schaubroeck. “Leader Personality Traits and Employee Voice Behavior: Mediating Roles of Ethical Leadership and Work Group Psychological Safety.” Journal of Applied Psychology 94.5 (September 2009): 1275–1286.

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    The authors reported that leaders’ self-reports of their personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness were positively related to followers’ reports of ethical leadership. Ethical leadership was found to have an indirect, time-lagged relationship with leader reports of employees’ voice behavior through employees’ psychological safety perceptions.

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Job Performance

A small but growing body of evidence reports that ethical leadership may enhance employees’ willingness to exert additional effort and ultimately improve job performance. Piccolo, et al. 2010 finds that ethical leadership is positively related to job performance of subordinates, and that this relationship is mediated by the level of task significance and effort felt by the subordinate. Additionally, Walumbwa, et al. 2011 observes a significant causal relationship between ethical leadership and employee performance, which was mediated by leader-member exchange, self-efficacy, and organizational identification. Finally, Zhu, et al. 2015 reports that ethical leadership indirectly increases both job performance and voice behavior as mediated by relational identification and organizational identification. These findings on ethical behavior and job performance are further supported by a meta-analysis of ethical leadership in Ng and Feldman 2015 (cited under Construct Definition). Scholars have also begun to explore how ethical leadership may encourage more specific aspects of performance, such as knowledge sharing, as in a recent study, Bavik, et al. 2018, and service behaviors, as in Schaubroeck, et al. 2016. The latter study assessed a latent growth model of how ethical leadership of bank tellers who were assigned the role of service quality leader was related to normative beliefs about customer service among their unit peers, which were, in turn, related to their appraised customer service performance.

  • Bavik, Y. L., P. M. Tang, R. Shao, and L. W. Lam. “Ethical Leadership and Employee Knowledge Sharing: Exploring Dual-Mediation Paths.” Leadership Quarterly 29.2 (2018): 322–332.

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    Based on a cross-sectional study, the authors reported that ethical leadership promoted employee knowledge sharing indirectly by promoting moral identity (symbolization) and perceived motivation to engage in knowledge sharing.

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  • Piccolo, R. F., R. Greenbaum, D. N. Den Hartog, and R. Folger. “The Relationship between Ethical Leadership and Core Job Characteristics.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 31.2–3 (February 2010): 259–278.

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    The authors emphasize how social transmission processes give ethical leaders a capability to influence employees to appreciate the social significance of particular behaviors. Ethical leadership enhanced employees’ perceptions of task significance and autonomy, which, in turn, led to increased effort. The results supported the model, and willingness to exert effort mediated the influence of ethical leadership on task performance and organizational citizenship behavior.

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  • Schaubroeck, J. M., S. S. Lam, and A. C. Peng. “Can Peers’ Ethical and Transformational Leadership Improve Coworkers’ Service Quality? A Latent Growth Analysis.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 133 (2016): 45–58.

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    The authors tested a latent growth mediation model of the relationship between the ethical and transformational leadership styles of bank tellers in Hong Kong who were assigned to be peer service quality leaders and their peers’ customer service behavior. Ethical leadership was linked to peers’ normative beliefs associated with customer service, which, in turn, were related to their service performance. Transformational leadership influenced service behavior primarily through behavioral beliefs.

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  • Walumbwa, F. O., D. M. Mayer, P. Wang, H. Wang, K. Workman, and A. L. Christensen. “Linking Ethical Leadership to Employee Performance: The Roles of Leader-Member Exchange, Self-Efficacy, and Organizational Identification.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 115.2 (July 2011): 204–213.

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    In a field study the authors examined leader-member exchange (LMX), self-efficacy, and organizational identification as mediators of the relationship between ethical leadership and job performance. These hypothesized relationships were supported by their data.

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  • Zhu, W., H. He, L. K. Trevino, M. M. Chao, W. Want. “Ethical Leadership and Follower Voice Performance: The Role of Follower Identifications and Entity Morality Beliefs.” Leadership Quarterly 26.5 (2015): 702–718.

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    The authors reported that ethical leadership was indirectly and positively related to job performance and voice behavior of employees through their relational identification and organizational identification. This effect was stronger among employees with strong entity morality beliefs, meaning those who think that moral beliefs are more fixed than malleable.

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Citizenship Behaviors

Research on the relationship between ethical leadership and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) is a growing area of interest to scholars. Piccolo, et al. 2010 (cited under Job Performance) reports that ethical leadership was related to OCB indirectly through perceived task significance and effort. Kacmar, et al. 2011 reports a positive relationship in the authors’ investigation of the relationship between ethical leadership behaviors and follower organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB’s). A number of studies have explored a variety of theoretical mediating variables. Ruiz-Palomino, et al. 2011 finds that supervisor ethical leadership (SEL) was indirectly related to OCB through the apparent mediating influences of affective commitment and job satisfaction. Mo and Shi 2017 examines and supports an alternate mediational process through employees’ concern for the organization and their procedural justice perceptions. Yang, et al. 2016 observes that the extent to which one perceives a favorable exchange relationship with one’s leader (LMX), respect for oneself within the organization, and general beliefs in one’s personal efficacy explained the ethical leadership–OCB relationship. Avey, et al. 2011 (cited under Shared Perception versus Relational Construct) also found a positive relationship between ethical leadership behaviors and follower OCB’s moderated by the self-esteem of the follower. Mayer, et al. 2009 reports direct positive relationships between the ethical leadership behaviors of senior and supervisory leaders and group level OCB’s at lower levels.

  • Kacmar, K. M., D. G. Bachrach, K. J. Harris, and S. Zivnuska. “Fostering Good Citizenship through Ethical Leadership: Exploring the Moderating Role of Gender and Organizational Politics.” Journal of Applied Psychology 96.3 (May 2011): 633–642.

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    The authors use social exchange theory and social role theory as a context for social role behavior and test the relations between ethical leadership and both person- and task-focused organizational citizenship behavior as well as examining the roles played by employee gender and politics perceptions.

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  • Mayer, D. M., M. G. Kuenzi, M. Bardes, and R. Salvaor. “How Low Does Ethical Leadership Flow? Test of a Trickle-Down Model.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 108.1 (January 2009): 1–13.

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    The authors examined the relationship between employees’ perceptions of their immediate leader’ ethical leadership as well as their reports of top managers’ ethical leadership. They found a positive relationship between these two measures, and they also found that the relationship between top management ethical leadership and group-level measures of employees’ prosocial and deviant behaviors was indirect through the immediate leader’s ethical leadership.

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  • Mo, S., and J. Shi. “Linking Ethical Leadership to Employees’ Organizational Citizenship Behavior: Testing the Multilevel Mediation Role of Organizational Concern.” Journal of Business Ethics 141.1 (2017): 151–162.

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    The authors observed that ethical leadership was positively associated with organizational citizenship behavior through the joint influences of employees’ organizational concern and their perceptions of procedural justice.

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  • Ruiz-Palomino, P., C. Ruiz-Amaya, and H. Knorr. “Employee Organizational Citizenship Behaviour: The Direct and Indirect Impact of Ethical Leadership.” Canadian Journal of Administrative SciencesRevue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration 28.3 (September 2011): 244–258.

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    The authors use social exchange theory as a lens in which to examine the relationship between supervisor ethical leadership (SEL) and employee organizational citizenship. A positive relationship was found, which was fully mediated by job satisfaction and affective commitment.

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  • Yang, C., C. G. Ding, and K. W. Lo. “Ethical Leadership and Multidimensional Organizational Citizenship Behaviors: The Mediating Effects of Self-Efficacy, Respect, and Leader-Member Exchange.” Group & Organization Management 41.3 (2016): 343–374.

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    The authors tested the mediated relationship between ethical leadership and OCB through self-efficacy, LMX, and autonomous respect in a large, industrially heterogeneous sample in Taiwan.

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Deviance and Unethical Behavior

The relationship between leadership and followers’ deviant and unethical behaviors continues to be an area of scholarly interest. Morgan 1993 investigated the perception of ethics within an organization and how these perceptions affect organizational behaviors. However as discussed by Harshman and Harshman 2008 there is still much work to be done to truly understand the factors that drive leaders to choose whether to behave in ethical or unethical manners. As Brown and Mitchell 2010 propose, by expanding the research literature on ethical behavior to include a focus on both positive and negative outcomes of organizational behaviors (emotions, fit and identity) scholars may find promising leads for expanding research agendas on leadership and ethics. Several research lines of research show promise. Stouten, et al. 2010 finds that ethical leadership is negatively related to bullying in the workplace. Mayer, et al. 2009 (cited under Citizenship Behaviors) also finds that ethical leadership is negatively related to group level deviance. Hoogervorst, et al. 2010 suggests that although disapproval of unethical follower behaviors (UFB) should promote an ethical environment, this outcome may be moderated when leaders (ethical or otherwise) benefit from the unethical behavior of employees. Avey, et al. 2011 (cited under Shared Perception versus Relational Construct) finds similar relations between ethical leadership and deviant behavior. However as discussed in Hoogervorst, et al. 2010, although disapproval of unethical follower behaviors (UFB) should promote an ethical environment, this outcome may be moderated when leaders benefit from the unethical behavior of employees. Lin, et al. 2016 studies the effects of ethical leadership on leaders themselves, suggesting that ethical leadership can sometimes lead to subsequent abusive leader behaviors. More recently, Moore, et al. 2019 observes a moderating role of moral identity on the relationship between ethical leadership and moral engagement in three separate studies. The interaction patterns differed, however, with two of the three showing a negative effect of ethical leadership among followers with higher moral identity, and all three differing on the slope of the relationship among followers with low moral identity.

  • Brown, M. E., and M. S. Mitchell. “Ethical and Unethical Leadership: Exploring New Avenues for Future Research.” Business Ethics Quarterly 20.4 (October 2010): 583–616.

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    The authors review literature that is relevant to the social scientific study of ethics and leadership, as well as outline areas for future study. They identify three emerging trends within the organizational behavior literature and propose that they be included in a leadership and ethics research agenda: (1) emotions, (2) fit/congruence, and (3) identity/identification.

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  • Harshman, C. L., and E. F. Harshman. “The Gordian Knot of Ethics: Understanding Leadership Effectiveness and Ethical Behavior.” Journal of Business Ethics 78.1–2 (March 2008): 175–192.

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    The authors propose two models or frameworks in which to view the nature of leadership and understand ethical behavior within organizations. The first is a model of leadership competencies. This model identifies five key areas of competence related to overall, long-term leadership success. The second model targets leadership effectiveness. This model has three components: motivational patterns, decision criteria, and competencies.

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  • Hoogervorst, N., D. de Cremer, and M. van Dijke. “Why Leaders Not Always Disapprove of Unethical Follower Behavior: It Depends on the Leader’s Self-Interest and Accountability.” Journal of Business Ethics 95.Suppl. 1 (September 2010): 29–41.

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    The authors examined factors influencing whether leaders consistently show disapproval of unethical follower behavior (UFB) and argue that holding leaders accountable for their actions should motivate them to disapprove of UFB. Support for these predictions was found via lab experimentation.

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  • Lin, Szu-Han, J-J. Ma, and R. E. Johnson. “When Ethical Leader Behavior Breaks Bad: How Ethical Leader Behavior Can Turn Abusive via Ego Depletion and Moral Licensing.” Journal of Applied Psychology 101.6 (June 2016): 815–830.

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    The authors examined the effects of ethical leadership on leaders’ abusive behaviors toward followers, identifying moral licensing and ego depletion as moderating factors.

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  • Moore, C., D. M. Mayer, F. F. Chiang, C. Crossley, M. J. Karlesky, and T. A. Birtch. “Leaders Matter Morally: The Role of Ethical Leadership in Shaping Employee Moral Cognition and Misconduct.” Journal of Applied Psychology 104.1 (2019): 123–145.

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    The authors examined interactive relationships between ethical leadership and moral identity in predicting moral disengagement, which was, in turn, related to unethical and deviant behaviors.

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  • Morgan, R. B. “Self-Worker and Coworker Perceptions of Ethics and Their Relationships to Leadership and Salary.” Academy of Management Journal 36.1 (February 1993): 200–214.

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    This research examined perceptions of ethics on the premise that such perceptions have important implications for ethical behavior in organizations. Various raters assessed the ethics of managers; subordinates and peers provided the least favorable assessments, which were directly related to perceptions of leadership but inversely related (for ratings by subordinates) to salary data. Implications for fostering ethical behavior in organizations are discussed.

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  • Stouten, J., E. Baillien, A. van den Broeck, J. Camps, H. de Witte, and M. Euwema. “Discouraging Bullying: The Role of Ethical Leadership and Its Effects on the Work Environment.” Journal of Business Ethics 95.Suppl. 1 (September 2010): 17–27.

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    The authors investigate how ethical leadership and its impact on work design can reduce bullying experienced by targeted employees in the workplace by impacting the design of the workplace environment. The authors found that the actions of ethical leaders can improve both the workload of employees and poor working conditions and subsequently reduce bullying.

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Job and Organizational Attitudes

Studies have reported moderately large cross-sectional relationships between ethical leadership and both job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Kim and Brymer 2011; Neubert, et al. 2009, cited under Regulatory Focus Theory; Ruiz, et al. 2011). Brown, et al. 2005 (cited under Construct Definition) finds that ethical leadership is positively related to job dedication of followers (i.e., their willingness to exert extra effort) and their satisfaction with the leader. Ng and Feldman 2015 (cited under Construct Definition) reports a corrected mean correlations of .42 and .40, respectively, for job satisfaction and affective organizational commitment. Other studies have examined factors commonly studied as antecedents of job and organizational attitudes. Detert and Burris 2007 observes a sizable relationship between ethical leadership and perceived pay fairness. Piccolo, et al. 2010 (cited under Job Performance) reports that El was positively related to core job characteristics such as task significance.

  • Detert, J. R., and E. R. Burris. “Leadership Behavior and Employee Voice: Is the Door Really Open?” Academy of Management Journal 50.4 (August 2007): 869–884.

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    This study observed a positive connection between a perception that leaders are open to employees speaking up about important matters and the employees actually engaging in such voice behavior. This relationship was found to be mediated by psychological safety, which refers to employees’ perceptions that speaking up and expressing differences does not have negative repercussions for the individual.

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  • Kim, W. G., and R. A. Brymer. “The Effects of Ethical Leadership on Manager Job Satisfaction, Commitment, Behavioral Outcomes, and Firm Performance.” International Journal of Hospitality Management 30.4 (December 2011): 1020–1026.

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    The author’s investigated the positive relationship between ethical leadership and competitive performance, finding that the relationship is positively mediated by job satisfaction, affective organizational commitment and extra efforts on the part of middle managers.

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  • Ruiz, P., C. Ruiz, and R. Martinez. “Improving the ‘Leader-Follower’ Relationship: Top Manager or Supervisor? The Ethical Leadership Trickle-Down Effect on Follower Job Response.” Journal of Business Ethics 99.4 (April 2011): 587–608.

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    The authors investigate how worker perception of ethical leaders within a hierarchical leadership structure promotes a trickle-down effect from senior leaders, to supervisors and workers and leading to improved follower job response.

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Psychological Safety and Voice Behavior

Researchers have found that ethical leadership on the part of organizational managers has a direct effect on employees’ perceptions of the organization having an “ethical climate” (Neubert, et al. 2009, cited under Regulatory Focus Theory). Depending on their level of comfort with both the organizational climate and its leadership, employees will feel varying levels of psychological comfort and safety in their willingness to express “voice” behaviors. For example, Detert and Burris 2007 (cited under Job and Organizational Attitudes) found a consistent relationship between perception of leader openness and employee voice as mediated by the employee’s perception of psychological safety. Detert and Treviño 2010 is a qualitative, multi-level analysis of the impact of leadership on voice behavior. They authors found that employees receive cues from leaders at multiple levels in the leadership hierarchy. They argue that based upon the nature of modern organizational workflows, it is often leaders two, three, or more levels above the employee who are perceived as having the power to resolve uncertainties that have the strongest direct and indirect impact on employee voice behavior. This is consistent with the empirical findings in Mayer, et al. 2009 (cited under Citizenship Behaviors) that leadership behaviors, specifically ethical leadership, has the ability to trickle down and be disseminated within the organization. This is further supported by Zhu, et al. 2015 (cited under Job Performance) in which ethical leadership was positively related to followers’ voice behavior through relational and organizational identifications. Although psychological safety may partially explain ethical leadership’s influence on employee voice behaviors (Walumbwa and Schaubroeck 2009, cited under Antecedents), a series of studies reported in Huang and Paterson 2017 introduces a construct of group ethical voice, which refers to how ethical leaders encourage employees to speak up on ethical issues and to challenging leaders when they disagree with them.

  • Detert, J. R., and L. K. Treviño. “Speaking Up to Higher-Ups: How Supervisors and Skip-Level Leaders Influence Employee Voice.” Organization Science 21.1 (January–February 2010): 249–270.

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    This study examined qualitative data from interviews and emphasized how employees often referred to leaders who were multiple levels above them in explaining why they thought that speaking up to authority in their organization was futile. The authors discuss direct and indirect modes of influence that they suggest to explain these feelings of employees.

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  • Huang, L., and T. A. Paterson. “Group Ethical Voice: Influence of Ethical Leadership and Impact on Ethical Performance.” Journal of Management 43.4 (2017): 1157–1184.

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    The authors conduct three studies providing evidence for the construct of group ethical voice, an outcome of ethical leadership in which followers feel enabled to speak up on ethical issues in the workplace in attempts to promote change. Group ethical voice is proposed to act as “eyes and ears” throughout the organization, warning management of ethical failings before they become headlines.

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Ethical Culture

Treviño, et al. 1998 (pp. 451–452) defines ethical culture. Specifically, in the view of the authors, ethical culture is “a subset of organizational culture, representing a multidimensional interplay among various ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ systems of behavioral control that are capable of promoting either ethical or unethical behavior” (see also Treviño 1986). Ethical culture refers to observable cultural artifacts, including perceived norms, standards, and sanctions for ethical and unethical behavior. These are similar to what Schein 1985 refers to as shared cultural elements and may operate as a shared perception at the unit or organization level. Ethical culture should not be confused with ethical climate (Victor and Cullen 1988), which refers to criteria used in ethical judgment processes and the level of analysis used by parties in making ethical judgments (see Mayer, et al. 2010; and Schminke, et al. 2005). Although they referred to their measure as ethical climate, the authors of Neubert, et al. 2009 (cited under Regulatory Focus Theory) examined the relationship between individual perceptions of ethical leadership and the ethical culture of the organization as measured in Treviño, et al. 1998. They found that relationships between ethical leadership and job satisfaction and affective organizational commitment were partially mediated by these individual ethical culture perceptions. Schaubroeck, et al. 2012 examines how ethical leadership cascaded across organizational levels in a deployed military setting. The authors report that ethical leadership cascaded leadership through lower level leaders and through lower level ethical cultures.

  • Mayer, D. M., M. Kuenzi, and R. L. Greenbaum. “Examining the Link between Ethical Leadership and Employee Misconduct: The Mediating Role of Ethical Climate.” Journal of Business Ethics 95.Suppl. 1 (September 2010): 7–16.

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    The authors investigate the mediating effect of ethical climate between the outcome of employee misconduct and the indicator of ethical leadership. Support for this relationship is found and theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

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  • Schaubroeck, J. M., S. T. Hannah, B. J. Avolio, et al. “Embedding Ethical Leadership within and across Organization Levels.” Academy of Management Journal 55.5 (2012): 1053–1078.

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    The authors formulated and tested a multilevel model in which ethical leadership at higher levels promoted ethical leadership and ethical culture at lower levels. These processes were associated with unethical behaviors of soldiers deployed in war.

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  • Schein, E. H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.

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    The author draws from existing research and theory as well as the author’s experience with change in organizations to explain the nature of organizational culture and how it influences how employees respond to change. The author also presents principles about inquiring into organizational culture and illustrates his points with several case examples.

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  • Schminke, M., M. L. Ambrose, and D. O. Neubaum. “The Effect of Leader Moral Development on Ethical Climate and Employee Attitudes.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 97.2 (2005): 135–151.

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    This field study tested the role of leaders’ moral development in influencing ethical climate and employee attitudes. The authors found that the influence of the leader’s moral development was stronger when leaders’ moral actions were consistent with their moral reasoning. Congruence between the leader’s moral development and their followers’ moral development was related to higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment and lower turnover intentions.

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  • Treviño, L. K. “Ethical Decision Making in Organizations: A Person Situation Interactionist Model.” Academy of Management Review 11.3 (July 1986): 601–617.

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    The author developed a conceptual model of how characteristics of people and their situations they encounter co-determine their propensity to engage in unethical behavior in organizations.

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  • Treviño, L. K., K. D. Butterfield, and D. M. Butterfield. “The Ethical Context in Organizations: Influences on Employee Attitudes and Behaviors.” Business Ethics Quarterly 8.3 (1998): 447–476.

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    The authors examined distinctions between the constructs of ethical climate and ethical culture. They found that items measuring the two constructs captured distinct but highly correlated dimensions. Organizational ethical culture was more strongly associated with unethical behavior in organizations with explicit ethical codes of conduct, whereas ethical climate was more strongly associated with unethical behavior in organizations without codes.

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  • Victor, B., and J. B. Cullen. “The Organizational Bases of Ethical Work Climates.” Administrative Science Quarterly 33.1 (March 1988): 101–125.

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    The authors developed a typology of ethical climate types that are based on three major classes of philosophy (principle, benevolence, and egoism), and three loci of analysis (individual, local, and cosmopolitan). They introduce a measure and report that most organizations in their sample adhered to one dominant ethical climate type from among the nine categories in their typology. Based on their findings, they reduced the number of climate dimensions for an empirical taxonomy of ethical climate.

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Leadership Influence across Levels

Building on previous research on charismatic and transformational leadership (Bass, et al. 1987; Block 2004; Chun, et al. 2009; Yang, et al. 2010), two studies have examined the cascading influence of ethical leadership, meaning how levels of these behaviors correlate down a hierarchy of authority. These efforts generally invoke social learning theory in Bandura 1971 (cited under Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory) in arguing that subordinate leaders are inclined to learn vicariously from their leaders and consequently imitate their behavior (Weiss 1977). However, other psychological processes may explain the correlation of leader behavior down a chain of authority, including relational identification (Chun, et al. 2009), legitimate and coercive authority of leaders to enforce similar behavior among subordinate leaders, and attraction-selection-attribution processes that lead similar people to report to one another in a leadership hierarchy. The authors of Mayer, et al. 2009 (cited under Citizenship Behaviors) ask employees in different organizations to rate their immediate supervisor’s ethical leadership as well as the ethical leadership of “top management.” They found that not only were these ratings positively correlated, but also ethical leadership of both top management and the immediate supervisor were positively related to organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and negatively related to deviant behavior perceived among employees in their units. Their analyses further revealed that the ethical leadership of the immediate supervisor mediated the effects of top management ethical leadership on group deviance and group OCB. Schaubroeck, et al. 2012 (cited under Ethical Culture) finds that this process was observed when ethical leadership was rated by followers of the leaders at each of three levels, as well as how the leaders indirectly influenced lower level leaders by embedding ethical practices and procedures at each level. Byun, et al. 2018 assesses how ethical leadership cascaded across three levels and influenced the performance of employees reported to the lowest level leaders. The authors of Wang, et al. 2018 seek to test the social learning process that is postulated to promote similarity in leadership perceptions between leaders at different levels (see Weiss 1977). They found that lower level leaders’ moral efficacy and outcome expectations for unethical behavior explained how appraisals of their ethical leadership were related to those of their leaders.

  • Bass, B. M., D. A. Waldman, B. J. Avolio, and M. Bebb. “Transformational Leadership and the Falling Dominoes Effect.” Group and Organization Studies 12.1 (1987): 73–87.

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    The authors tested the idea that transformational leadership cascades across levels. First-line supervisors’ transformational and transactional leader behaviors correlated with the same behavior of their immediate supervisors.

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  • Block, L. “A Multilevel Analysis of Transformational Leadership.” International Journal of Applied Management and Technology 2 (2004): 1–21.

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    The authors report on a study in which lower level employees reported on the transformational and transactional behaviors of leaders at multiple levels above them. They observed that employees reported higher transformational leadership for leaders at higher levels, and there were correlations of the transformational leadership measures across levels that were suggested to reflect a cascading of leadership influence.

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  • Byun, G., S. J. Karau, Y. Dai, and S. Lee. “A Three-Level Examination of the Cascading Effects of Ethical Leadership on Employee Outcomes: A Moderated Mediation Analysis.” Journal of Business Research 88 (2018): 44–53.

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    This paper presents a test of a three-level cascading model. The authors found that the cascading of ethical leadership promoted less social loafing and, in turn, higher task job performance among the employees reporting directly to the leaders at the lowest level in the hierarchy.

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  • Chun, J. U., F. J. Yammarino, S. D. Dionne, J. J. Sosik, and H. K. Moon. “Leadership across Hierarchical Levels: Multiple Levels of Management and Multiple Levels of Analysis.” Leadership Quarterly 20.5 (2009): 689–707.

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    The authors explored how charismatic and transactional leadership cascaded across levels. The relationship between managers’ ratings of their own leader behavior and that of their department heads was partially mediated by the managers’ personal identification and value internalization with their department heads. Leadership at the higher level was related to follower outcomes of satisfaction, helping behavior, and job performance.

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  • Wang, Z., H. Xu, and Y. Liu. “How Does Ethical Leadership Trickle Down? Test of an Integrative Dual-Process Model.” Journal of Business Ethics 153.3 (2018): 691–705.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10551-016-3361-xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors found that ethical efficacy perceptions and unethical behavior outcome expectancies largely explained the relationship between ethical leadership of middle managers and leaders who reported to them.

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  • Weiss, H. M. “Subordinate Imitation of Supervisor Behavior: The Role of Modeling in Organizational Socialization.” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 19.1 (1977): 89–105.

    DOI: 10.1016/0030-5073(77)90056-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author tested whether first-line supervisors imitated the leadership style of their bosses. The degree of similarity of leader behavior between the two levels was positively related to the subordinates’ perceptions of their supervisors’ competence and success.

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  • Yang, J., Z. X. Zhang, and A. S. Tsui. “Middle Manager Leadership and Frontline Employee Performance: Bypass, Cascading, and Moderating Effects.” Journal of Managerial Studies 47.4 (2010): 654–678.

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    Relationships between ratings of transformational leadership across three management levels were investigated. Middle managers’ (highest level) transformational leadership was related to lower level employee performance partially through the transformational leadership of subordinate leaders. This study is the first to document “bypass” effects, where leadership influence is transmitted to a lower level without necessarily influencing leader behavior at the adjacent level.

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Culture

Scholarly interest in ethical leadership is a cross-disciplinary endeavor. Scholars in areas as diverse as psychology, business, sociology, political science, medicine, and education are all actively researching what “ethical leadership” means in their respective context and domain and what role societal leaders (business and otherwise) should play in meeting not only the respective needs of their constituents but also of society as a whole. Scholars have also investigated variation in beliefs regarding ethical leadership in different societal cultures around the world. Martin, et al. 2009 investigates and compares the beliefs of what constitutes ethical leadership on the part of German and US middle managers. The authors found that although both groups endorsed character/integrity, encouragement, and collective motivation as important, they differed in their respective degrees of endorsement for each aspect. Similarly, Baglione and Zimmener 2007 compares the beliefs values and ethics of Chinese and US business leaders. The study found that although both Chinese and US business executives valued ethical behavior and positive values, the Chinese leaders believed more strongly in the linkages between organizational climate, employee performance and strong organizational ethics, values, and beliefs. Resick, et al. 2011 (cited under Social Exchange and Social Cognitive Theory) investigates the convergence and divergence of ethical and unethical beliefs of leaders in six different societies (Hong Kong, Taiwan, People’s Republic of China, United States, Ireland, and Germany). They found that when faced with an ethical dilemma, leaders are likely to use their unique respective cultural value system and ethical frameworks as the absolute standard on which to base their actions. The findings suggest that in many cases items of ethical importance to one society may be overlooked or deemed insignificant to members of another society.

  • Baglione, S., and T. Zimmener. “Ethics, Values, and Leadership Beliefs and Practices an Empirical Study of US and Chinese Business Executives.” Chinese Management Studies 1.2 (2007): 111–125.

    DOI: 10.1108/17506140710758017Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study investigates whether ethics influences work performance and location. A comparison of business executives in Chinese and American communities and careers found that ethical behavior and positive values are sought and rewarded in both locales. Findings indicate that US executives believe that positive ethical practices are rewarded in the short and long term, whereas Chinese executives believe primarily in long-term rewards.

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  • Martin, G. S., C. J. Resick, M. A. Keating, and M. W. Dickson. “Ethical Leadership across Cultures: A Comparative Analysis of German and US Perspectives.” Business Ethics: A European Review 18.2 (April 2009): 127–144.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8608.2009.01553.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors examine beliefs about four aspects of ethical leadership—character/integrity, altruism, collective motivation, and encouragement—in Germany and the United States, using data from Project GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness). Results suggest that, while German and US middle managers were neutral regarding the importance of altruism, they differed in their degrees of endorsement for character/integrity, collective motivation, and encouragement.

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