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Why Becoming A Leader Makes Some People More Unethical

A new study reveals how people in leadership positions might be more prone to making unethical decisions.

Why Becoming A Leader Makes Some People More Unethical
[Image: Gustave Doré via Wikimedia Commons]

The higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the more likely you might be to engage in unethical behavior.

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That’s the findings of the latest study from Jessica Kennedy, assistant professor of management at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Kennedy says she had a hunch that high-ranking executives had more difficulty accurately perceiving ethical problems, even though previous studies suggested that they had the confidence, influence, and control of resources necessary to put a stop to unethical practices.

To find out if this was true, Kennedy studied archival survey data from more than 11,000 U.S. federal government agency employees. Then separate experiments were conducted in which about 300 participants were randomly assigned high- or low-ranking positions.

The experiments revealed that those who were given a position of high rank were 75% more likely to lie for financial gain. This result indicates that those at the top of the hierarchy are less likely to correct bad behavior, a concept referred to as “principled dissent” in the research.

The experiments also revealed the reason why those with higher rank were more likely to excuse and go along with bad behavior: They identified strongly with their group.

Further, the study says that the more strongly high-ranking individuals identified with being a part of the group they were leading, the likelier they were to view their group’s decision as more ethical–even if it wasn’t. Finally, the research suggests that low-ranking individuals may be better at perceiving and acting against unethical practices.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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