Recent incidents of leaders’ ethical failure in organizations such as, Enron, Volkswagen, and WellsFargo have led to increased attention to ethical leadership as a crucial yardstick for good leadership in organizations.

Micheal Brown, a professor of management from Penn State University and his colleagues define ethical leadership as the “demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct…and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making.” This entails behaviors such as treating employees fairly, making fair and balanced decisions, defining success not just by the results but also by the way they are obtained, disciplining employees who violate ethical standards, and setting an example for how to do things the right way, amongst others. When managers demonstrate these behaviors, employees perform better, experience higher job satisfaction, increased wellbeing, and are unlikely to engage in unethical behavior. With these positive benefits, an important question remains: why do some managers engage in ethical leadership behaviors than others?

From a personality trait approach, preliminary research evidence suggests that, of the Big-Five personality traits, leader conscientiousness seems most crucial for the explicit ethical focus that distinguishes such leadership approach from related approaches to leadership, primarily due to its moral cognitive foundations. Indeed, to be ‘‘conscientious’’ is to be governed by one’s conscience, a foundation for moral evaluation. Conscientious individuals pay careful attention to detail, are deliberate rather than haphazard in their decision-making, have a strong sense of moral obligation, and act based on their conscience. It is therefore not surprising that management scholars suggest that organizations should develop recruitment strategies targeted at selecting conscientious leaders given their ethical leadership potential.

But, why exactly are these “so-called” good managers (i.e., conscientious leaders) likely to demonstrate ethical leadership behaviors? And when are they likely (or unlikely) to live up to our expectations?

To answer these questions, my colleagues (Michelle Bligh, professor of management at Claremont Graduate University, Babatunde Ogunfowora from the University of Calgary, Liang Guo from NEOMA Business School, Omale Garba from Boston University) and I built off the above preliminary findings. In a recent study published in the Journal of Business Ethics, we found that conscientious leaders engaged in ethical leadership behaviors because they go through a cognitive process of reflecting on moral matters or ethical issues in their day-to-day experiences and decisions. However, we also found that lack of decision-making autonomy constrained the extent to which their moral reflectiveness led to ethical leadership as perceived by their employees.

With data collected from managers and their employees at various organizations in Africa (28 managers and 115 employees) and Asia (163 managers and 714 employees), our findings suggest that:

To foster ethical leadership, it is not sufficient to only hire conscientious leaders or managers. Organizations that recruit managers high in conscientiousness may never benefit from recruiting such managers because lack of decision-making autonomy tends to constrain the extent to which their cognitive reflections on ethical issues lead to meaningful demonstrations of ethical leadership. Therefore potentially leaving organizations with the huge cost associated with the absence of ethical leadership— Wells Fargo to pay $185 Million Fine Over Illegal Account Openings and still paying.

“The key to fostering a work environment where conscientious leaders are able to reach their potential for ethical leadership is to better enhance their moral reflectiveness and provide them with a considerable level of autonomy to make decisions where they are better able to establish standards for appropriate norms and define the right sanction system for inappropriate behaviors.

Based on our findings, these are important ways organizations can benefit from recruiting conscientious managers and foster ethical leadership:

1. Create Room for Moral Reflection

To develop ethical leadership or decrease unethical behaviors, organizations should devote special attention to getting their managers to reflect deeply on moral issues or ethical dilemmas faced around them (e.g., the need to secure profit versus maintain a moral compass that takes all organizational stakeholders into account). To do so, organizations can organize specialized workshops that offer participants the opportunity to openly discuss day-to-day ethical dilemmas faced in the workplace and help them reflect upon the ethical implications of their decisions as leaders.

2. Provide Sufficient Decision-making Autonomy to Conscientious Managers

It is very crucial to afford conscientious leaders the freedom to make decisions on how their tasks and work is achieved, as this will strengthen the benefits that can be derived from such leaders. Imagine what might happen when a manager knows the right thing to do, but do not have the sufficient discretion to act accordingly. The lack of decision-making autonomy makes it virtually impossible and difficult for such leaders to come across as ethical leaders.

3. Beware of Giving Decision-making Autonomy to Managers Low in Conscientiousness

Despite the importance of giving sufficient autonomy to good managers, our findings also suggest that organizations need to be cautious of the fact that decision-making has no significant influence on the ethical leadership conduct of managers who are low in conscientiousness. These managers are typically unlikely to engage in ethical leadership behaviors because they are less likely to habitually reflect on ethical issues in their day-to-day work life. As our results demonstrate, having high level or less decision-making autonomy has minimal impact on the extent to which they demonstrate ethical leadership. Thus, low leader conscientiousness and high levels of decision-making autonomy together are potentially detrimental since such leaders would have no internal moral checks and balances (i.e., moral reflectiveness) that inhibit unethical conduct, but would have the decision making capacity to potentially engage in unethical leadership behavior.

These insights confirms a psychological theory by Albert Bandura, which suggests that most human behaviors whether good or bad, are determined first by individual personality, followed by the cognitive reflection that accompanies the specific personality trait. Yet, good mangers (e.g., conscientious managers) sometimes do NOT live up to our expectations because although their mind is willing, situation constrains. The extent to which conscientious leaders’ moral reflectiveness translates into observable ethical leadership is constrained in a situation where they have little or no discretion or control in terms of their responsibilities and behavioral strategies for fulfilling those responsibilities.

For more details about this study, see: Babalola, M.T., Bligh, M.C., Ogunfowora, B., Guo, L., & Garba, O.A. (2017). The mind is willing, but the situation constrains. Why and when leader conscientiousness relates to ethical leadership. Journal of Business Ethics.

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