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Unethical Leaders Inspire Corruption In Their Followers

We’re often told to lead by example, but this study from @HandelshoyskBI proves why we should practice what we preach…
We’re often told to lead by example, but this study proves why we should practice what we preach….
  • Ethical leaders act as role models, using reward and punishment to decrease unethical behaviour
  • Followers of ethical leaders intuitively avoid engaging in unethical behaviour
  • This includes behaviours such as embezzlement, bribery, and corruption

Unfortunately, we’re all getting too used to seeing cases of unethical business behaviour reported in the news. Whether it’s fashion retailer Boohoo facing backlash from consumers and investors alike following claims they had links to modern slavery and sweatshops, or Philip Green, owner of multi-million-dollar retail empire Arcadia Group, receiving widespread criticism for firing staff whilst taking personal advantage of Government-awarded furlough handouts. And that was in June and July alone.

A common cause of unethical behaviour is corruption at the higher levels of an organisation; leaders abusing their public or organisational power for personal gain – such as politicians bribing lawyers or officials, employees embezzling money. All actions which, as well as being unpalatable, can cause significant harm to organisations – once corruption in an organisation is exposed it can often lead to a loss of public trust. And that’s not all. Corruption can also cause significant damage to wider society – for example, corruption has been identified as one of the root causes of poverty.

With so much on the line for organisations, how can unethical behaviour run unchecked so frequently? Unfortunately, when acts of this nature are committed at a senior level – in organisations or society – those occupying positions lower down the chain often follow suit. When looking at where corruption and other unethical behaviours in followers stem from, it makes sense to look towards leaders.

A very visible example is leadership in the US under the Trump administration. Donald Trump has a history of unethical behaviour, including a long list of alleged involvements in corruption. He was impeached by the House of Representatives in 2019 for an abuse of power and a number of people close to Trump have been indicted for corruption-related crimes: Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, just to name a few. In 2018, a government ethics watchdog even released a report claiming Donald Trump has led the “most unethical presidency” in US history.

Most recently, Trump showed reluctance to accept the 2020 election result and urged his supporters to head to the Capitol to protest, pushing for it to be ‘strong’ and ‘wild.’ Not long after, the US Capitol was attacked by Trump supporters. He was then impeached a second time for attempting to pressure election officials and for inciting the Capitol riot.

Has Trump’s unethical behaviour and leadership led to his supporters engaging in this behaviour, as well as influenced individuals close to Trump to also take part in corruption?

Doctoral candidate M. Untung Manara, supervised by Associate Professor Suzanne van Gils from BI Norwegian Business School, and colleagues at Maastricht University, investigated how ethical leadership might impact the behaviour of employees inclined to engage in unethical behaviour and surveyed employees from various job sectors. They found that greater ethical leadership is related to individuals exhibiting less corrupt behaviours.

In a second study, participants watched a video of either an ethical leader or an unethical leader to motivate them before playing an auction game where two participants bid against each other in an attempt to win a prize. A third participant was in charge of allocating the prize to the highest bidder. However, the bidders were provided the option to bribe the allocator to ensure they received the prize regardless of their actual bid.

This study found that ethical leadership directly related to a reduction in followers’ corruption, as participants were less likely to offer a bribe if they had watched the ethical leader before playing the game. Furthermore, ethical leadership was found to reduce corruption due to followers of ethical leaders engaging in a more intuitive thinking style. This means followers of an ethical leader engage in less deliberate thinking and avoid unethical behaviour more through a sense of intuition, gut feelings, or first impressions.

Dr van Gils believes the project’s findings will have important ramifications for future business practice. “This is an important global goal and one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” she says. “Our study provides practical insights by showing that organisations and governments can promote ethical leadership to prevent corruption in organisations.”

As well as corruption, Trump has consistently voiced sexist and racist sentiment, referring to immigration as an ‘invasion’ and undocumented immigrants as ‘animals.’ As of 2019, during the Trump administration, White nationalist hate groups in the US had grown by 55% and incidents of racism were also reported to have increased.

Perhaps Donald Trump’s unethical behaviour and alleged involvement in corrupt acts has emboldened those that follow and support him to engage in similar acts? He has refused to take responsibility for the Capitol riots, but this research suggests what we do and what we say as leaders can influence the behaviour of our followers. With a possible return to the political stage for the 2024 election not entirely out of the question, it’s unlikely Trump will change his ways.

But change can come swiftly. Although we are only in the early stages of Biden’s presidency, he has already shown signs of being a more ethically-minded and stable leader. It will be interesting to see what the impact and influence Biden’s leadership style will have on his followers and their behaviour.

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