The leadership moral grey zone. Or, more plainly, the tolerance of unethical leadership behaviour has a huge impact upon businesses, their people and, ultimately their success. If you’ve ever worked in a dysfunctional organisation where unethical practices are the accepted norm or bullying, gossip and favouritism is rife, you’ll be familiar with the grey zone.
Whether you’re part of a start up or an established business, your choice of leader (and the systems that support them is the bedrock of success). In spite of more immediate short term wins, there’s no longevity for a leader in the moral grey zone. The grey zone leader may appear to be achieving results, but they’re not sustainable. Think Siemens former CEO and Chairman, Heinz-Joachim Neuberger and Johannes Feldmeyer, fined for bribery. Or the arrest of Bruno A Kaelin Head of Corporate Compliance at Alstom following investigations into his alleged role in a bribery slush fund. One of the most infamous moral grey leaders was Kenneth Lay of Enron, convicted of 6 counts of fraud. His unethical behaviour resulted in the downfall of the company. Often tolerated, morally grey leadership wreaks lasting damage.
What does it look like?
Research from Knoll, Lord, Peterson and Weigelt ( 2016, Journal of Applied Psychology, 46) identified two factors necessary for predicting unethical behaviour;
- Moral disengagement
- Situational strength
So what does this look like in practice? The researchers found that for leaders to engage in unethical behaviour, for example (if indeed you do need an example).
Bullying, marginalising, spreading rumour, preferential treatment of ‘favourite’ staff, manipulating information, cheating, lying or using the workplace to enhance personal relationships or social status
They have to morally disengage their own moral compass, or ignore societal norms to enter into the above.
Can you spot them?
Surprisingly, yes. There are telltale signs. The research found that leaders in the grey zone typically;
- Have Low Levels of Emotional Intelligence. Grey leaders focus on the task and the results they want rather than their behaviours or how they get there. Self awareness and self regulation is usually low in unethical leaders. They are unable to heed internal clues and cues that their behaviour is unacceptable. They are also unable to recognise that such behaviours are shunned by wider society. They are oblivious to their behaviours and may even believe they are role modelling.
- Reduced Self-Organisation. When we operate effectively as human beings our values and systems are congruent. The lack of alignment that unethical behaviour produces is easily tolerated by grey leaders. When behaving unethically, they don’t feel dissonance between the beliefs they hold or espouse and their actions.
- Decreased Self Regulation. Unethical leaders display behaviours that lack impulse control, shouting, swearing, lying, bullying, creating a culture lacking in transparency, resulting in mistrust. Take time to reflect upon the worst office despot you’ve worked with and anyalse their behaviour, an ability to control themselves is usually in short supply. They are reactive, mercurial, the organisational grenade without a pin and more than just a little bit scary to be around.
- Lack Authenticity: They don’t know who they are or they are pretending to be something they’re not with a compelling variety of ‘Game faces.’ An individual’s level of authenticity is a significant predictor of unethical behaviour. High levels of authenticity are the armour against unethical leadership. People with high levels of authenticity have greater self awareness and self regulation. They are not driven by ego and status and place more emphasis on listening, learning and developing. They possess a congruence between their values and their actions and when they don’t they feel it.
The 4 Step Predictive Process
To disengage morally is a four step process. If you’re leading a business you may recognise the telltale signs in your own behaviour (don’t beat yourself up, you can change it). If you’re responsible for L & D these are the stages of moral disengagement to watch out for;
- Creating a story. This is characterised by ‘everyone else is doing it’ or ‘just this once’. A reconstruction that enables the unethical behaviour to flourish. It creates a reality where the behaviour is no longer immoral. The narrative is always creating justification for the behaviour e.g. ‘It’s not against the law’
- A reduction in accountability. Grey leaders place less emphasis on their own agency a more on the responsibility of colleagues by blaming others, organisational culture, systems and processes.
- They deny the result or pass the buck. Unethical leaders either deny or do not recognise the consequences of their behaviour. They are also adept at passing the buck.
- Victim perception. They will downplay their impact upon others or mentally reduce the status of those falling foul of their actions. Perceptions such as ‘They’re not important anyway’ ‘They don’t matter’ ‘They wouldn’t have a job without me’ scenarios are common. Unethical leaders often push the blame onto their victims, absolving themselves of all responsibility.
Is it their fault or are they misunderstood?
The researchers found another significant factor affecting the moral grey zone, situational strength.The cues and systems provided by an organisational culture will either support or discourage unethical behaviour. The people, the culture, reward systems, processes to ensure compliance, actions, punishments (or lack of) all come together to form psychological impetus for ethical or unethical behaviour. Organisational systems and structures often support unethical behaviour. You might not be approving it but are you tacitly saying it’s wrong?
Reflect on our checklist to see if you are supporting the development of unethical behaviour
- A lack of authenticity
- Your organisation places emphasis on task completion above all else
- Your business has considered objectives but not behaviours
- You do not explicitly disapprove of unethical practice
- Your systems promote a lack of ethics and may even reward them
- You recognise a narrative pattern that always seeks to blame others or justify behaviours
- You identify behaviours that fail to recognise the consequence of actions
- There is a narrative about how the impact of victims is negligent or it is their fault.
To learn more about selecting leaders or developing a workplace culture that promotes ethical behaviours contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join one of our Leadership programmes. We offer espresso bitesize, half day, one day, conference or bespoke sessions.