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The Journal Gazette

March 02, 2016 3:58 PM

Moral, ethical tones should start with leaders

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

When people know where you stand -- even supervisors -- they're less likely to test your boundaries.

That's one takeaway from research on how something as simple as a moral quote or symbols that suggest integrity can make a supervisor think twice about asking you to do something unethical.

Research for the study by Sreedhari Desai and Maryam Kouchaki included lab experiments and one organizational survey to determine whether subordinates who had moral symbols displayed, such as a quote in an email signature, could discourage superiors from asking them to perform unethical acts.

Desai is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at University of North Carolina's business school. Kouchaki is an assistant professor at Northwestern University.

Their study, of which the Academy of Management Journal has taken note, included having participants in a decisionmaking game. Money was at stake and participants had choices about engaging in deceptive behavior or asking virtual teammates to do so.

An abstract on the Academy's site highlights several findings from the study, which has been referenced the last couple of weeks in multiple publications including Harvard Business Review. Among the findings, the researchers say, the study demonstrates "moral symbols influence ethical decisions despite the powerful positions of superiors and do not bring hidden backlash effects against those who display them."

The findings confirm to me that leadership is not about a title, but often about personal standards. And leadership can come from all levels.

Hopefully most organizations and businesses have leaders who set the tone for integrity, rather than only taking their direction from the ethics of those they supervise.

It takes not just competency but moral character to make great leaders.