July 20, 2018
By Tristan McIntosh, PhD
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
– Lord Acton
The flurry of today’s news headlines about abuses of power by public officials, business moguls, and other high-ranking leaders quickly bring this popular adage to mind. It may seem like there is a news story every other day about someone in a position of power who engages in some corner-cutting or self-serving behavior. This raises the question: does power make people unethical? The answer to this question may be more complicated than one might first expect.
Leaders are often the individuals who hold positions of power. That is, they have the ability to exercise influence over others. Leaders can be categorized into two types based on the way they wield that power: socialized or personalized. Socialized leaders have goals and engage in behaviors that act to collectively benefit the group of people they are leading. On the other hand, the goals and behaviors of personalized leaders are self-serving in nature. These leaders are less likely to consider the perspectives of others. Personalized leaders are also more likely to make exceptions for themselves when it comes to institutional rules and ethical guidelines.
It is easy to see how the hubris of personalized leaders has the potential to cause turmoil within an organization. However, socialized leaders are not immune to making unethical decisions either. Ethically charged situations are ambiguous, emotional, and complex. These types of situations make it easy for biases to arise in any leader or employee. Biases, or cognitive shortcuts, can interfere with objective information gathering and level-headed decision making. So, it may be difficult for a leader, even with the best intentions, to properly handle an ethical situation.
Leaders are responsible for setting the tone of the ethical climate in their organization through modeling behavior, imposing certain rules and policies, and shaping organizational norms that direct employee behavior. All of these factors have a huge impact on employee ethical decision making, subsequent organizational success, and the occurrence of ethical scandals. So what can organizations do to counteract the potential negative effects of power and susceptibility to making unethical decisions? The following three steps should be on any organization’s ethics “to-do” list:
With all of this in mind, it is important to remember that unethical behavior is not limited to leaders and people in positions of power. It applies to everyone in every position. Fortunately, the straightforward and concrete steps listed above can be taken to help address these concerns and lessen the likelihood of unethical behavior in the workplace.
The Ethics Advantage Team