Attending to ethics

A study by management and entrepreneurship professors Michael Baer and David Welsh unravels the differences between prevention- and promotion-focused ethical leadership behaviors.

By Sally J. Clasen

Most bosses motivate employees to get the job done ethically — in one way or another. But the encouragement managers and supervisors give employees to be morally responsible isn’t always framed in ways that champion positive behavior.

Sometimes the message sent about doing the right thing is more about how to avoid doing the wrong thing.

While both approaches to ethical leadership may help employees reach their job goals, the consequences for each style — contrary to how organizations and academia have treated the subject — produce different results, according to Michael Baer, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship.

Baer, along with David Welsh and David Waldman (both faculty members at ASU), and John Bush (a former PhD student at ASU) explored the characteristics of “attending to the wrong” compared to “attending to the right” in a research study, titled “Discouraging Unethicality Versus Encouraging Ethicality: Unraveling the Differential Effects of Prevention- and Promotion-focused Ethical Leadership.”

Results from the study appeared in the online version of Wiley’s Personnel Psychology in February 2020.

Act this way

“The goal of most organizations, particularly good ones, is to encourage supervisors and managers to promote ethicality in their employees. We want employees to act ethically and behave in ways that benefit others,” says Baer.

“Generally, all leadership behaviors that encourage these outcomes have been treated the same, from a supervisor trying to get employees to act more ethically — what we call promotion-focused ethical leadership — to a supervisor trying to get employees to not act unethically — what we call prevention-focused ethical leadership.”

On any given day, a supervisor probably will demonstrate prevention- and promotion-focused ethical leadership qualities, according to Baer. Leaders who "attend to the wrong," typically monitor employees' behaviors, warn against the consequences of unethical actions, and punish offenses. Those who "attend to the right" typically support, reward, and encourage employees who act ethically.

“Both of these approaches fall under the umbrella of ethical leadership, and in each instance, the supervisor probably has the good intention of fostering positive behavior in the workplace,” adds Baer.

In Baer and his colleagues' opinion, however, lumping the two concepts has made it difficult to understand the real effectiveness of different leadership behaviors and doesn’t adequately explain the different dynamics of attending to the wrong versus attending to the right.

“We had the intuition that when supervisors try to promote ethicality, it is not received the same for employees as when supervisors try to prevent unethicality,” explains Baer of the study’s focus.

The behavior of ethics

The researchers' instincts proved accurate, as Baer and his colleagues discovered that prevention- and promotion-focused ethical leadership methods don’t behave similarly, and therefore have unique behavioral and relational outcomes.

The researchers tested their hypothesis first by developing standard measures to evaluate prevention- versus promotion-focused ethical leadership qualities. Next, using the validated items created in the first phase of the study, for 12 consecutive days the researchers tracked 112 professional MBA students attending a large university who worked full-time in diverse industries including education, health care, finance, and social services.

The employees rated their bosses on daily leadership behaviors related to ethical matters, which helped researchers determine how supervisors acted and if they tended to focus more on encouraging good behavior or preventing bad behavior — and how it affected the study participants.

What we found is when supervisors focused on preventing unethical behavior, it decreased the amount the employees felt trusted. From an employee perspective, it was negative. They felt monitored and wondered, ‘Why is my supervisor reminding me of these things? They must not trust me if they are always on my case and watching me for unethical behavior.’

Michael Baer, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship

Conversely, when supervisors engaged in promotion behaviors and encouraged employees to do good things, employees viewed that as receiving care and support from their supervisor and felt more trusted on those days.

In other words, good is good.

“When employees feel trusted, they participate in more helping behaviors toward the organization, are willing to go out of their way, and go above and beyond their job duties. And it decreases the extent to which they do negative things toward coworkers,” he adds.

A case for morality

As part of the study, the researchers also delved into the practice of moral hypocrisy — when leaders encourage ethical behavior but do not model those behaviors themselves. They asked study participants to rate their supervisor’s moral hypocrisy (or lack of it) to gain more insight into how that behavior shapes the course of employees’ ethical actions.

Their investigation highlights the importance of leaders who “walk the talk,” supporting the notion that ethical leadership behaviors influence employees based on the degree to which the leader is perceived to be a moral person.

Are leaders moral hypocrites or not? It matters. Employees see supervisors as the moral embodiment of an organization. Moral hypocrisy causes employees to question whether their supervisor cares or supports them.

Michael Baer, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship

The findings of the study reveal that the positive effect of promotion-focused ethical leadership on felt trust was reduced when leaders were perceived as behaving in ways incongruent with their words — or morally hypocritical.

If supervisors want to lead ethically, just acting in a morally principled way isn’t sufficient. Their behavior must reflect not only who they are but what they do, according to Baer. “It’s not enough for leaders to talk the talk, they have to also walk the talk,” he says.

For example, if a leader suggests an employee follows the rules one day but doesn’t follow them himself/herself, or tells subordinates to do things he/she wouldn’t do, employees witness duplicity at work and trust is threatened.

Promoting the good

When managers focus on preventing bad behavior, rather than promoting good behavior, it conveys a lack of confidence in the employee, with the potential to cause fractures in the supervisor-employee relationship.

Plus, when employees perceive mistrust they often “lash out” with inappropriate and, sometimes, illegal conduct — compromising an organization’s reputation and possibly leading to the ethical downfall of the business, as the headlines in the past decade prove.

In many cases, supervisors aren’t even aware they are behaving in a way that increases the likelihood of unethical behavior among employees, according to Baer. If supervisors want to build better relationships with employees, they need to consider whether their actions to promote ethicality are taking a punitive angle or a more supportive angle.

The guidance that researchers give organizations is that it’s beneficial to promote ethical behavior in organizations. Our research suggests that organizations need to pay close attention to how managers convey that message.

This research provides a framework for supervisors to better understand the differences between prevention- and promotion-focused ethical leadership characteristics and the distinct outcomes they have on employees and organizations.

“Both approaches work,” says Baer. “Each gets the ethical behaviors organizations want. Trying to prevent unethical behavior is not a bad thing. However, the question is: Are supervisors providing negative messaging or positive messaging? Our research suggests it is important to consider the holistic effects of ethical leadership behaviors; it’s more effective to encourage employees to do good things than to discourage them from doing bad things.”

Read research by professors Baer and Welsh about the problems with employee performance goals.

Latest news