This is how ethical leaders can be bad bosses

Sometimes, being worried about doing the right thing is not always a good thing.

A new study in the Journal of Business Ethics found that there’s a limit to ethical leadership. When your righteous leader sets exacting standards that are stressful to meet, that stress leads employees to act out their frustrations and anxieties on the job, causing employee turnover and deviant behavior.

Study: Ethical leaders can cause unhelpful stress in employees

How can an ethical leader be seen as a bad boss? The Baylor University researchers found that even a leader with the best of intentions can cause harm when employees see the ethical leadership as a roadblock to their job performance.

“Our results show that when an ethical leader also happens to be a source of stress for employees then the positive effects of ethical leadership on employee deviance and turnover intentions are less positive,” the study’s lead author Matthew Quade told Ladders.

Surveying 609 employees about their supervisors’ ethical leadership, researchers found that stress-inducing ethical bosses made employees’ jobs harder. Employees with ethical bosses answered affirmatively to statements like  “my supervisor makes it so that I have to go through a lot of red tape to get my job done” and “working with my supervisor makes it hard to understand what is expected of me.”

Researchers found that these standards increase the likelihood of inefficiencies and ineffectiveness in employees when these ethical tasks are seen as stressful. “Ethical leadership can be an exacting process of sustaining high ethical standards, ensuring careful practice and enforcement of all rules, and meeting leaders’ lofty expectations, all of which can consume time and energy and be perceived by employees as overly demanding or an obstacle to job performance,” the study states.

In a twist of irony, being forced to meet ethical standards can cause bad behavior when employees don’t feel supported. Researchers found stressed employees under ethical bosses become more likely to show up late to work, or daydream instead of work, or stop following their bosses’ instructions.

This doesn’t mean you should stop being ethical

The researchers don’t want your takeaway to be that being unethical is the way to lead. “We definitely don’t want to give the impression that people shouldn’t behave or manage ethically,” Quade said. “We absolutely think they should and our research would suggest they should.”

It’s possible to be fair and do your job right. To be ethical and lead fairly, the work that goes into being fair needs to be acknowledged and supported by management, Quade said. He recommends being explicit about ethical dilemmas and demands being placed on employees. That way, everyone goes to work with their eyes wide open about what is expected of them.

For ethical leaders who want to avoid being headaches to their employees, here are tips from Quade to follow:

  • Ethical leaders need to provide resources for employees to meet the leaders standards of ethical behavior
  • Ethical leaders need to reduce ambiguity in ethically-charged situations, helping make it clear to employees how they should behave in certain situations
  • Ethical leaders need to communicate efficient ways for employees to meet standards and reduce unnecessary steps or procedures, as long as they don’t compromise ethical standards