What’s Your Intention?

Bauer Researchers Look at How Bad Behavior Impact Leaders

Published on July 2, 2020

Photo: Bauer Researchers Look at How Bad Behavior Impact Leaders

All too frequently, highly visible leaders in sports, politics and religion are reported to have engaged in unethical conduct. Some of these offenders end up labeled as morally bankrupt and receive severe punishments. Others, who have apparently caused even greater harm to organizations or society, are seemingly given the benefit of the doubt, escaping serious consequences for their actions.

New research from the C. T. Bauer College of Business suggests the perception of the intention to do harm to others is by far the biggest factor in determining the severity of the resulting punishment. 

Jim Phillips

Jim Phillips

“Leader Intention, Misconduct and Damaged Relational Follower Identity: A Moral Decision-Making Perspective,” recently accepted for publication in one of the world’s premier academic journals, Leadership Quarterly, is co-authored by Department of Management & Leadership Professor Jim Phillips and Instructional Assistant Professor Ksenia Krylova, as well as a graduate of Bauer’s doctoral program, Assistant Professor Phillip Jolly of the Pennsylvania State University.

The work explores the dynamics of how leaders’ bad behavior impacts their followers. Researchers measured participants’ emotional and behavioral responses after they had played an incentivized game with real economic consequences. Unbeknownst to the participants, their leaders’ behaviors during the game were computer-generated and therefore, could be controlled by the researchers to be either selfish or altruistic conduct. Additionally, the researchers controlled whether the leaders’ conduct caused the followers any harm.

Ksenia Krylova

Ksenia Krylova

The results suggest that followers withdraw from leaders who they believe attempted to intentionally harm them, irrespective of whether they experienced any actual harm. Additionally, leaders who are self-serving are held morally responsible, even for unintentional harm if the followers are convinced that the harm was foreseeable and preventable.

“Whether the intended harm occurred is secondary to beliefs about the leaders’ intentions,” Phillips said. “These judgments also seem to occur through the transgressors having violated the victims’ expectations about how others should behave in a given situation. Punishment, on the other hand, results directly from harm. The desire to punish offenders is, therefore, not dependent on victims’ judgments of whether the transgressor is a good person or not.

“In terms of punishment, whether the victims’ expectations were violated doesn’t seem relevant,” he added. “Rather, people want to punish transgressors whenever they experience harm, and they will sometimes punish people even when those persons are not objectively the reason that they were harmed.”

The implications point to the importance of leaders maintaining a reputation for selflessness.

“Followers will withdraw from questionable leaders, both psychologically and physically, even if the leaders’ selfish conduct didn’t cause any noticeable harm,” Phillips said. “The mere desire to attempt to personally gain at the expense of others will often be enough to lead to moral condemnation.”