Mayowa BabalolaTo foster ethical leadership in organisations, hiring conscientious managers is not enough, according to new research conducted by Dr Mayowa Babalola at ACU’s Centre for Sustainable Human Resource Management & Wellbeing. Organisations may never benefit from recruiting conscientious managers if these managers lack decision-making autonomy, as it constrains their ability to lead ethically.

Recent incidents of leaders’ ethical failure in firms such as, Enron, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo have led to increased attention on ethical leadership as a yardstick for good practice in organisations. Ethical leadership involves behaviours such as treating employees justly, making fair and balanced decisions, and defining success not just by results but by the way they are obtained. When managers demonstrate such behaviours, employees perform better, experience higher job satisfaction, increased wellbeing, and are unlikely to engage in unethical behaviour.

So why do some managers engage in ethical leadership more than others? To answer this question, Dr Mayowa Babalola and his team recruited managers and employees from various organisations in Africa (28 managers and 115 employees) and Asia (163 managers and 714 employees). In their recent study published in the Journal of Business Ethics, they found that conscientious leaders engage in ethical leadership behaviours by reflecting on ethical issues as part of their day-to-day work. However, lack of decision-making autonomy constrains the extent to which such reflectiveness actually leads to ethical leadership.

Dr Babalola’s research finds the key to fostering ethical leadership is to strengthen opportunities in organisations for moral reflectiveness, backed by increased autonomy for ethical decision-making. To reap the benefits of ethical leadership, organisations need to take the following steps:

1. Create room for moral reflection

To develop ethical leadership and decrease unethical behaviours, organisations should encourage managers to reflect on ethical dilemmas at work (eg balancing the narrow pursuit of profits versus meeting the needs of wider stakeholders). Workshops and staff meetings can provide opportunities to openly discuss and reflect on ethical dilemmas in the workplace.

2. Provide decision-making autonomy to conscientious managers

Conscientious managers should be given greater autonomy to take ethical decisions. A lack of decision-making autonomy makes it virtually impossible for conscientious managers to be in tune with and enact their ‘moral compass’.

3. Limit decision-making autonomy for managers low in conscientiousness

For managers who are low in conscientiousness, decision-making autonomy has little to no impact on the extent to which they reflect ethically or exercise ethical leadership.  Consequently, organisations should limit the autonomy of managers whose low moral reflectiveness may lead them to engage in potentially unethical leadership behaviour.

Dr Babalola’s research extends previous psychological theory by highlighting the role autonomy plays in ethical leadership. Even the most conscientious of managers can fall short when their autonomy is limited; although their minds may be willing, their situation constrains.

For more details about this study, see: Babalola et al. (2017). The mind is willing, but the situation constrains. Why and when leader conscientiousness relates to ethical leadership. Journal of Business Ethics.

Back to news