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It’s a Match: Moralization and the Effects of Moral Foundations Congruence on Ethical and Unethical Leadership Perception

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While much research has focused on the effects of ethical and unethical leadership, little is known about how followers come to perceive their leaders as ethical or unethical. In this article, we investigate the co-creation of ethical and unethical leadership perceptions. Specifically, we draw from emerging research on moral congruence in organizational behaviour and empirically investigate the role of congruence in leaders’ and followers’ moral foundations in followers’ perceptions of ethical and unethical leadership. By analysing objective congruence scores from 67 leader–follower dyads by means of polynomial regression with surface response analysis, we find partial support for our theoretically derived predictions. Significant effects were revealed for the fairness, loyalty, and authority moral foundations but not for the care and sanctity moral foundations. We discuss theoretical and practical implications of these findings.
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Journal of Business Ethics (2020) 167:707–723
It’s aMatch: Moralization andtheEects ofMoral Foundations
Congruence onEthical andUnethical LeadershipPerception
MaximEgorov1· KarianneKalshoven2· ArminPircherVerdorfer1· ClaudiaPeus1
Received: 15 August 2018 / Accepted: 8 May 2019 / Published online: 23 May 2019
© Springer Nature B.V. 2019
While much research has focused on the effects of ethical and unethical leadership, little is known about how followers
come to perceive their leaders as ethical or unethical. In this article, we investigate the co-creation of ethical and unethical
leadership perceptions. Specifically, we draw from emerging research on moral congruence in organizational behaviour and
empirically investigate the role of congruence in leaders’ and followers’ moral foundations in followers’ perceptions of ethical
and unethical leadership. By analysing objective congruence scores from 67 leader–follower dyads by means of polynomial
regression with surface response analysis, we find partial support for our theoretically derived predictions. Significant effects
were revealed for the fairness, loyalty, and authority moral foundations but not for the care and sanctity moral foundations.
We discuss theoretical and practical implications of these findings.
Keywords Moral congruence· Moral foundations· Moralization· Ethical leadership· Unethical leadership
Over the last 15years, leadership ethics has become a rap-
idly developing research area in organizational behaviour
and has substantially contributed to our understanding of
misconduct in work contexts. This line of research is con-
cerned with the practice or violation of certain moral prin-
ciples in the process of leading. Ethical leaders are gener-
ally characterized as honest, considerate, and fair. They are
willing to share power and make clear what is expected of
employees in terms of ethical conduct (Brown and Treviño
2006). Unethical leaders, in turn, are described as oppres-
sive, abusive, and exploitative (De Hoogh and Den Hartog
2008; Tepper etal. 2017), reflecting harmful methods of
influence (Schyns and Schilling 2013). Research in this field
typically relies on follower perceptions of leader behaviour
(Den Hartog 2015; Tepper etal. 2017). While perceptions
of ethical leadership have been consistently linked to a wide
array of positive work outcomes, i.e. favourable job attitudes
as well as motivational and performance outcomes (Ng and
Feldman 2015; Treviño and Brown 2014), there is strong
evidence for the negative effects of unethical leadership per-
ceptions such as reduced follower wellbeing and increased
levels of counterproductive work behaviours (Schyns and
Schilling 2013).
While much is known about the outcomes of ethical and
unethical leadership perceptions, our understanding of the
formation of such perceptions remains underdeveloped. The
majority of research on ethical and unethical leadership is
based on a leader-centric perspective, viewing followers as
mere recipients of leader influence in predicting outcomes.
While there is increasing awareness in the general leader-
ship literature that leadership represents a co-created pro-
cess between leaders and followers (Hernandez etal. 2011;
Uhl-Bien 2006), little attention has been devoted to the role
followers and, even more importantly, the interplay of lead-
ers and followers may play in the ethical and unethical lead-
ership process (Lemoine etal. 2018; Thoroughgood etal.
2018). Thus, we know little about how leader and follower
characteristics interact in shaping follower perceptions of
ethical and unethical leadership. In fact, what leaders actu-
ally do and how they are eventually perceived by followers
seems not to be a linear relationship and the same behaviour
of a leader can be perceived differently by different follow-
ers. This is particularly true for ethical and unethical leader
* Maxim Egorov
1 TUM School ofManagement, Technical University
ofMunich, Munich, Germany
2 Amsterdam Center ForIntegrity andLeadership, Amsterdam,
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
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