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Do Unethical Leaders Foster Conflict Among Followers?

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Recent events, such as the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, questionable accounting practices at Enron, and illegal hiring practices among Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies, are just a few among many examples of unethical organization leadership practices today.While the impact of unethical leadership practices on local communities is often times immeasurable, what is less well understood is the impact of this type of leadership inside the organization. Specifically, how does unethical leadership impact those individuals working under it?

A recent study, presented at the 2014 International Association of Conflict Management (IACM) in the Netherlands, addresses this question. Mayowa Babalola, a doctoral student at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and colleagues surveyed 165 supervisor-employee pairs measuring employee ratings of their supervisors’ ethical leadership behaviors, employees’ confidence in their ability to resolve disputes with other employees, and supervisors’ observations of conflicts between their subordinates. They found that, indeed, ethical leadership does impact employee relations. When supervisors were seen as less ethical, their employees felt less confident in their ability to resolve conflicts with peers. Further, employees lacking this confidence reported experiencing more conflicts with coworkers.

In short, leaders who take ethical short-cuts may not only be compromising the local community through their behaviors – they may be undermining their own efforts by destabilizing their organizations internally. In practice, consultants, coaches and other practitioners working within organizations should be on the look out for these types of dynamics, and be prepared to discuss with leaders the possible unintended consequences of taking ethical short cuts.

Bablola, M.T., Stouten, J., & Euwema, M. (2014). Managing relationship, task, and process conflict in the workplace: The role of ethical leadership. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Association of Conflict Management (IACM).


Nick Redding

Nick Redding is a doctoral student in the Social-Organizational Psychology department at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Project Coordinator for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, he spent two years living in South Africa as a U.S.… MORE >

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