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Joint Influences of Individual and Work Unit Abusive Supervision on Ethical Intentions and Behaviors: A Moderated Mediation Model

By Sean T. Hannah, Wake Forest University; John M. Schaubroeck, Michigan State University; Ann C. Peng, Michigan State University; Robert G. Lord, University of Akron; Linda K.Trevino, Pennsylvania State University; Steve W. Kozlowski, Michigan State University; Bruce J. Avolio, University of Washington; Nikolaos Dimotakis, Georgia State University; and Joseph Doty, United States Military Academy. In Journal of Applied Psychology.

What is it that makes an organisation - or the individuals within it - behave unethically? There may be many factors but one of the key influences is the effect of leadership. The underlying perception is that 'good' leadership (in this case defined by low levels of abusive leadership, or bullying) might lead to good business practice and vice versa, with a particular suggestion that poor leadership of this kind might weaken the moral courage of the victims and those around them.

This may seem obvious but so far it hasn't been quantitatively assessed to any great degree. Lord et al set out to rectify this omission, at least in part, through modelling the influence of this kind of abusive leadership within an organisation and testing the extent to which it influences, either directly or indirectly, the behavior of those affected.

Testing the Hypothesis

The study formed part of a larger research project undertaken by the US military and tested a number of hypotheses relating to the link between abusive leadership, moral courage and ethical behavior. These hypotheses were based around the overall contention that abusive supervision is negatively linked to the level of moral courage exhibited by followers.

The research was survey-based and interviewed a total of 1,582 serving service personnel in the US Army, establishing both the level and type of abusive leadership to which they felt they had been subjected and measuring unethical behavior. Statistical significance testing established a positive correlation between abusive supervision and a range of unethical behaviors but a negative relationship with 'good' acts such as exhibition of moral courage or espousal of the organisation's key values.

Learning Lessons

The results indicated that both social context and personal experience had an impact upon moral outcomes among those who were direct targets of abuse and among others. As with all such studies, however, there are caveats. Even a statistically significant correlation between leadership and behavior isn't, in this case, proof that the relationship is causal, although it does highlight how important good leadership is within an organisational context.

The results are not unexpected, because leaders are, almost by definition, role models and so negative behavioural aspects observed in positions of seniority might also be expected in those junior to them - just as good leadership is shown to increase ethical behaviour. As the authors observe, "reducing unethical behavior is a concern in any organisation," and, while total eradiation is impractical, the findings highlight the need to take action for the mutual benefit of an organisation and the individuals within it.