As I was thinking about what to write today, I received a journal article that talked about the importance of role models. The authors studied a group of business students and found that when it comes to ethical behavior, the students relied at least as much on what they saw leaders do as what they were told. Further, it’s not the executive leaders who serve as day-to-day role models when it comes to ethical behavior, it’s immediate supervisors and coworkers.
The authors pointed out that leaders are being watched – they guide others’ behavior whether or not they intend to. A friend told me a story that illustrates this point. She was consulting with the local branch of an international firm. One day the CEO visited the office and was taken on a tour. After admiring the well-kept building and comfortable office space, he commented that the lobby would be an excellent place for a fountain. After the CEO left, staff began making plans and collecting bids to build a lobby fountain. My friend was surprised at how far the project went before someone clarified that the CEO didn’t actually want a fountain – he was just making an observation.
As we take on more leadership responsibility, our words and actions take on more weight. The fountain experience had no major consequences (although I’m sure someone would have had problems once they tried to justify funding). But what if the CEO had said, “I need you to finish the project by the end of the month. I know the approval process usually takes longer than that, but figure it out.” Comments like that can lead people to cut corners or take ethical shortcuts in order to do what they think is required.
If employees see a pattern of unethical leadership shortcuts, they are more likely to take unethical actions themselves. On the other hand, if employees see their leaders displaying respect and integrity, they will model that behavior with each other. If leaders are consistent and transparent, then they are more likely to be given the truth in return.
What kind of a role model are you?
Dee Anne Bonebright
Reference: Hanna, R.C., Crittenden, V.L., & and Crittenden, W.F., (2013). Social Learning Theory: A Multicultural Study of Influences on Ethical Behavior. Journal of Marketing Education published online 31 January 2013