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Leading our unethical leaders: Behaving as we want our jurors to behave

Monday, February 20, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Many of us have been members of organizations led by someone we consider unethical. And we’ve seen that people tend to excuse individual behavior when we see it as something done through the charismatic [albeit negative] influence of a group leader.

Now researchers are looking at how we (as members of a group led by an unethical leader) justify our own bad behavior as acceptable since “s/he [e.g., the leader] told us to do it”. The concept is called ‘moral disengagement’ and it describes the process through which we displace our own responsibility for unethical behavior because it was ordered or condoned by someone in leadership. [Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib or Enron, for example.] We think it’s relevant for both the dynamics of juries and our own membership in varied organizations. It’s about our perspective toward what leadership is and how we either stand up for our beliefs or condone unethical behavior.

The researchers looked at various orientations toward leadership and hypothesized accordingly:

High leadership self-efficacy beliefs: These followers see themselves as being as capable as their leaders and may view leaders more as peers. They would likely have a more difficult time displacing responsibility for their own behavior onto an unethical leader.

Low leadership self-efficacy beliefs: These followers see themselves as in need of a leader who is more talented and experienced than they are themselves. They “value harmony and are nonconfrontational in their relationships with others. As followers, the combination of desiring harmony, being unwilling to confront others and having an unsophisticated view of the leader-follower relationship may cause them to be vulnerable toward displacing responsibility onto a leader”.

And they were right. Those who do not see themselves as leadership material, who are nonconfrontational and naive about leadership are more likely to displace responsibility for their actions onto others. The researchers recommend we pay attention to how we educate about leadership–and stop focusing on dividing people up into groups of leaders and non-leaders.

Why? Basically, they warn that ‘followers’ identified as ‘non-leadership material’ may see themselves as less ‘able’ than those designated as leaders. This would increase ‘followers’ being prone to excuse themselves for bad behavior performed on the order or advice of the group leader. Rather, say the researchers, we should focus on educating about the shared responsibilities of the leader and group member/follower.

We would concur. As part of orienting jurors (or new members of an organization) it is wise to educate on how the role of the follower and the role of the leader are much the same.  Challenge and empower the typical follower into embracing a stronger role. A perspective where we see our leaders (elected as presiding juror or as leader of our organizations) as sharing responsibility with us is the healthiest and most functional strategy as well as the one most likely to result in all members maintaining responsibility for their own behavior.

When you have a ‘shared orientation’ toward leadership, you do not blindly accept directives, you consider both your values and the views of leaders, and speak up if you disagree. You engage and participate. In other words, you come to resemble (by your nature or your new awareness) those classified as having “high leadership self-efficacy beliefs”.

Justice challenges this rising-up from jurors. We should expect it from ourselves within those groups with which we choose to affiliate.

HINRICHS, K., WANG, L., HINRICHS, A., & ROMERO, E. (2012). Moral Disengagement Through Displacement of Responsibility: The Role of Leadership Beliefs Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42 (1), 62-80 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00869.x

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