Study: Ethical Bosses Produce "Company Employees"

A study of 440 workers has found that ethical leadership produces engaged employees who identify more closely with their organization.  It also reduces workplace envy.

The research, done on personnel in the Turkish aircraft maintenance industry, was conducted by a team comprised of Turkish and American academics.  It has just been published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

“When workers feel their occupations are meaningful it positively influences how well they do their jobs,” says Sean T. Hannah, professor in the School of Business at Wake Forest University and one of the paper’s authors.  “This research suggests that to increase workplace meaningfulness organizations should orient their leadership programs to focus on the development of ethical leadership.”

The study also found that workers who could control their emotions by changing the way they think about their work situations felt their work had more meaning.  That’s called “cognitive reappraisal.”  And workers who had ethical leaders combined with good cognitive reappraisal strategies, showed the highest levels of commitment.   

The 440 workers completed six surveys of five-point Likert-type scales to measure how ethical they felt their bosses were, how meaningful the work that they did was, their level of engagement with the work, their level of envy of others in the workplace, and how much they identified with their organization.   Another survey assessed how well they felt they controlled their emotions on the job. 

The ethical leadership survey, for example, asked employees to rate on a five-point scale where one was “strongly disagree” and five was “strongly agree” a series of statements such as “My supervisor…makes fair and balanced decisions” and “defines success not just by results but by the way there are achieved.” 

The workplace envy survey featured statements such as “Most of my co-workers have it better than I do,” and “It is somewhat annoying to see others have all the luck in getting the best assignments.” 

Cognitive emotion regulation was measured by responses to statements such as “I control my emotions by changing the way I think about the situation I’m in” and “When I want to feel less negative emotion, I change the way I’m thinking about the situation.”

The researchers wanted to test emotion regulation’s role in worker satisfaction because, says Hannah, scholars are “moving from a leader-centric view of leadership to attempt to more fully understand the active roles that followers play in the construction of leadership.”

Using multiple regression analysis, the team found statistically significant correlations showing that “…ethical leadership has a significant and positive direct effect on engagement and organizational identification.”  It also had a direct negative effect on workplace envy. Hannah says, “when people are engaged in meaningful work they tend focus on getting the mission done and contributing to the organization, and less about themselves and on petty envy of coworkers.  

“Results also showed that cognitive reappraisal emotion regulation strategy…strengthens the relationship between ethical leadership and meaningful work.”

The study participants were 317 men and 123 women.  Their average age was 43 and most had been on the job just under 12 years.  Thirty-six percent worked in manufacturing, 27 percent had technical jobs, 23 percent performed quality management duties, 12 percent were in programming or budgeting and two percent had other functions.

The paper is titled “The Moderated Influence of Ethical Leadership, Via Meaningful Work, on Followers’ Engagement, Organizational Identification, and Envy.”

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Wake Forest University School of Business
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