How Moral Leadership Trickles Down to Everyone

Most people would agree that it is important for leadership to set a positive example.

If those in charge don’t do the right thing, how can you expect anyone else to?


Is it possible that we take this idea too far?

New research has found that leadership’s moral decisions can have a powerful influence on perceptions of an organization and its employees—even when it has no actual effect on their individual morality or behaviors.




Suspicion trickles down, not up

Imagine that you were looking at the resume of a highly-qualified candidate.

Their previous experience includes working somewhere that had an ethical scandal. Perhaps it was even a high-profile case like Worldcom, Lehman Brothers, or Enron.


How would this influence your perceptions of the candidate? Would you still want hire them?


A recent series of studies suggests that you would probably have a more negative impression of such a candidate, and ultimately would be less likely to hire them.

This could make sense if you actually believed that the candidate was involved in any wrongdoing.

But the research suggests that this isn’t how it works.


Instead, the moral transgressions of those in charge tend to create suspicion toward the organization itself, including all of its members.

This same suspicion even exists when we judge a person from the organization who has never actually met or worked with the transgressor.


Meanwhile, the moral transgressions of lower-ranking employees don’t seem to have much influence on perceptions of their organization, or of those in charge.


Moral suspicion is very intuitive in one sense.

We perceive leaders as representatives of their organizations, and if we are suspicious of leadership, we tend to also be suspicious of everyone within the organization.


And extremely counterintuitive in another.

We seem to hold subordinates accountable for the ethical violations of leadership, but tend not to hold leadership accountable for the ethical violations of their subordinates.



Moral suspicion can influence hiring decisions, and often seems to do so in a way that is actually quite unfair.

This is also one more example of why hiring based on intuition is problematic—and why the use of objective hiring tools is becoming increasingly popular.



Image credit: Scott Cresswell, son_gismo

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