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The Mind is Willing, but the Situation Constrains: Why and When Leader Conscientiousness Relates to Ethical Leadership

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While previous research has established that employees who have a more conscientious leader are more likely to perceive that their leader is ethical, the underlying mechanisms and boundary conditions of this linkage remain unknown. In order to better understand the relationship between leader conscientiousness and ethical leadership, we examine the potential mediating role of leader moral reflectiveness, as well as the potential moderating role of decision-making autonomy. Drawing from social cognitive theory, results from two samples of workgroup leaders and their immediate reports situated in Africa and Asia show that leader conscientiousness is positively related to leader moral reflectiveness, which in turn, is positively associated with employees’ assessment of ethical leadership. Furthermore, and consistent with our hypothesis, results from the two samples show that leader decision-making autonomy moderates the indirect path from leader conscientiousness to ethical leadership through moral reflectiveness, such that only morally reflective leaders who have high (versus low) decision-making autonomy at work engage in ethical leadership behaviors. In our discussion, we highlight the theoretical and practical implications of our findings and suggest ways in which organizations can better foster ethical leadership.
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ORIGINAL PAPER
The Mind is Willing, but the Situation Constrains: Why and When
Leader Conscientiousness Relates to Ethical Leadership
Mayowa T. Babalola
1
Michelle C. Bligh
2
Babatunde Ogunfowora
3
Liang Guo
4
Omale A. Garba
5
Received: 31 July 2016 / Accepted: 25 March 2017 / Published online: 1 April 2017
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017
Abstract While previous research has established that
employees who have a more conscientious leader are more
likely to perceive that their leader is ethical, the underlying
mechanisms and boundary conditions of this linkage
remain unknown. In order to better understand the rela-
tionship between leader conscientiousness and ethical
leadership, we examine the potential mediating role of
leader moral reflectiveness, as well as the potential mod-
erating role of decision-making autonomy. Drawing from
social cognitive theory, results from two samples of
workgroup leaders and their immediate reports situated in
Africa and Asia show that leader conscientiousness is
positively related to leader moral reflectiveness, which in
turn, is positively associated with employees’ assessment
of ethical leadership. Furthermore, and consistent with our
hypothesis, results from the two samples show that leader
decision-making autonomy moderates the indirect path
from leader conscientiousness to ethical leadership through
moral reflectiveness, such that only morally reflective
leaders who have high (versus low) decision-making
autonomy at work engage in ethical leadership behaviors.
In our discussion, we highlight the theoretical and practical
implications of our findings and suggest ways in which
organizations can better foster ethical leadership.
Keywords Ethical leadership Leader conscientiousness
Moral reflectiveness Decision-making autonomy
Introduction
Over the last decade, high-profile incidents of leaders’
ethical failure in organizations such as Enron, WorldCom,
and Tyco have increased both scholars’ and practitioners’
attention to the ethical aspects of leadership. Despite this
attention, and the increasing pressure on corporate leaders
to behave ethically, new incidents of ethical failure con-
tinue to emerge, such as the recent Volkswagen emission
test scandal. Brown et al. (2005) define ethical leadership
(EL) as ‘‘the demonstration of normatively appropriate
conductand the promotion of such conduct to followers
through two-way communication, reinforcement, and
decision-making’’ (p. 120). Scholars studying ethical
leadership behavior in organizations have empirically
demonstrated its positive links with important work out-
comes such as employee ethical conduct (Mayer et al.
2012), organizational citizenship behavior (Babalola et al.
2017; Newman et al. 2014; Ogunfowora 2014a), voice and
employee cynicism (Pelletier and Bligh 2008; Walumbwa
and Schaubroeck 2009), reduced workplace conflicts (Ba-
balola et al. 2016), performance (Zhu et al. 2015), and
(ethical) job applicant attraction (Ogunfowora 2014b).
Although the majority of this work has focused on the
consequences of ethical leadership, comparatively less
research has addressed its antecedents (e.g., Kalshoven
et al. 2011; Mayer et al. 2012; Walumbwa and Schau-
broeck 2009; Zhu et al. 2016). For instance, Mayer et al.
&Liang Guo
Liang.Guo@neoma-bs.fr
1
Peter Faber Business School, Centre for Sustainable HRM
and Well-being, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne,
Australia
2
Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, USA
3
Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary,
Calgary, Canada
4
NEOMA Business School, Rouen, France
5
Boston University, Boston, MA, USA
123
J Bus Ethics (2019) 155:75–89
DOI 10.1007/s10551-017-3524-4
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
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