Leaders Can Feel Licensed To Behave Badly When They Have Morally Upstanding Followers

By Emma Young

Countless studies have investigated how a leader’s behaviour influences their followers. There’s been very little work, though, on the reverse: how followers might influence their leaders. Now a new paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, helps to plug that gap with an alarming finding: good, morally upstanding followers can create less ethical leaders.

M. Ghufran Ahmad at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and colleagues ran a series of studies on participants in an executive training programme at a business school in Pakistan. All were senior or mid-level managers, from a variety of organisations. These, then, were the “leaders”. The people that they managed were the “followers”.

In an initial study, the team found that the more a participant felt that their followers engaged in “organizational citizenship behaviour” (OCB) — such as going out of their way to be “good” to other employees — the more “moral credit” that leader felt they had personally accrued. The concept of moral credit relates to the theory that we each balance good and bad behaviours, to maintain a kind of moral equilibrium. A good deed ups our moral credit, while a bad one depletes that credit. While this phenomenon has been found for individuals, it’s thought to apply to groups, too: if one member behaves morally, others can feel licensed to behave less well.

The team then ran follow-up online studies on fresh batches of participants. These revealed that when a leader was encouraged either to feel more narcissistic (in this case, more responsible for their group’s success) or to identify with their followers (by reflecting on characteristics that they shared with their group, for example), they were especially likely to feel that their own moral credit had risen as a result of good behaviour by their followers.

These studies all involved experimental manipulations and vignettes, however. And they didn’t tackle the critical question: can vicarious moral credit free leaders to actually behave more badly?

To get closer to a real-world scenario, the team ran a field study involving 250 managers, all again from the same course. These participants completed four online surveys over two days. They reported on follower OCBs, the extent to which they identified with their followers, their perceived levels of moral credit, levels of narcissism and also any unethical behaviour that they themselves engaged in — such as doing personal business on company time or passing blame for errors to an innocent coworker.

The team found that these leaders were indeed more likely to behave badly when they felt themselves to be in moral credit as a result of good behaviour by their subordinates. Tallying with the earlier findings, this effect was especially strong when leaders were narcissistic and/or closely identified with their followers.

“Across multiple studies, our findings indicate that follower OCB can provide leaders with moral credit to engage in subsequent unethical behaviour,” the team writes.

If good teams can foster unethical behaviour among leaders, this insight is relevant to all kinds of organisations, not just businesses. It’s important, too, that leaders who felt closer to the people that they managed were even more susceptible to the effect. As the researchers write: “Our findings provide further support for the notion that close relationships between leaders and followers are not always a good thing”.

There are a few caveats. One, the studies were all conducted in Pakistan, which, the team notes, is more collectivistic than the UK or US, for example. Similar studies in other countries will be needed to explore whether these findings hold in more individualistic cultures.

Clearly much more work is needed to explore the extent to which leaders actually use moral credit to engage in bad deeds in the workplace, or at home, or elsewhere — and over what kind of timescales. Also, what might temper the effect? Are leaders who see themselves as “good people” less susceptible to it, perhaps? And how does each individual’s good or bad behaviour influence the others in the group? If we each have a moral equilibrium, an individual who performs a good deed will surely then feel licensed to behave less well themselves — but does the behaviour of their manager have any impact? There are all sorts of outstanding questions that new studies in this area will hopefully answer.

Can good followers create unethical leaders? How follower citizenship leads to leader moral licensing and unethical behavior.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest