Scholars of Public Administration (PA) are increasingly interested in scientifically measuring the influence of ethical leadership in public institutions. Research has revealed that ethical leadership can enhance worker commitment, organizational citizenship behavior, public service motivation, willingness to report and address unethical conduct, workplace corruption, and incivility and reduce unwarranted absences (Bashir & Hassan 2020). On the other hand, few studies have considered unethical leadership’s consequences, causes, and prevalence in public institutions. Nonetheless, ongoing media reports of unethical conduct by voted into office politicians and civic managers imply that, besides assessing the influence of ethical leadership, we should investigate the origins and repercussions of unethical leadership behavior in public enterprises. This paper will explain why more research is needed on unethical leadership and its impact on public institutions.
It is vital to understand that lack of ethical leadership is not the same as unethical leadership. The lack of ethical leadership is well recognized as ethically neutral leadership. Unethical leadership is defined as actions or behaviors that violate current moral standards and are illegal. Leaders can participate in unethical leadership to demoralize the interest of others, satisfy the desires of their organizations or satisfy personal desires. Managers’ oppressive, abusive, and hostile behaviors are good examples of unethical leadership. Behaviors that indirectly encourage individuals to participate in unethical behavior are also part of unethical leadership—for instance, ordering subordinates to use all means available to improve organizational performance and accepting unethical behaviors of workers who are performing well.
Limited research is the reason for the proliferation of unethical leadership in organizations. On the other hand, organizational research reveals that unethical management action is rather widespread. On average, in the United States, 14% of workers are victims of abusive supervision. Unethical leadership is a common phenomenon in the public sector. One might argue that unethical leadership is among the primary causes of corruption in third world countries. On the other hand, it is a significant cause of deep corruption in developed countries (Bozeman et al., 2018). Deep corruption refers to a situation in which government officials use the nation’s institutional machinery to systematically undermine communities’ crucial public principles, such as putting barriers for minorities and immigrants to use public services and the right to vote.
Several factors can be attributed to the lack of research on unethical leadership, especially in public organizations. One possible reason is the existence of positive bias. There is a general assumption that the persons who decide to work in nonprofit and government organizations are concerned about others’ well-being, ethical, and highly motivated to serve the public (Mozumder 2018). By this assumption, we ignore the fact that some civic employees and officials in government institutions use their authority or position for individual gains. Another reason for limited research is the challenges in getting access to data. It is challenging for public administration scholars to get data from public managers and elected officials. Even in the case where researchers have access to data, the research participants do not feel safe or comfortable sharing information and data about the unethical conduct of their bosses.
While there has been a little study in public administration on the determinants of unethical leadership conduct in public enterprises, studies on the darker side of abusive supervision and leadership gives us some indications of the possible determinants. This research reveals that managers and leaders may become abusive and hostile towards junior staff with different values and perform poorly (Zhang et al., 2018). Another evidence also reveals that managers and leaders who experienced that experienced mistreat in their own lives or careers are likely to maltreat their junior staff (Fragouli, 2018). Personal traits such as right-wing authoritarianism, neuroticism, social dominance orientation, and narcissism are strongly linked with unethical leadership.
Misplaced and unrealistic organizational goals and poor reward systems are potential causes of unethical behavior by public and business managers. In developing countries, one of the primary reasons for bribery in both public and private organizations is a poor reward system (Bashir & Hassan 2020). Excessive dependence on goal performance measurements may tempt some government officials to manipulate the system by allocating the organization’s resources in ways that optimize quantifiable performance while undermining public ideals. Soss, Schram, and Fording (2011) discovered that using performance bonuses developed unfair competition between service suppliers and motivated some workers to participate in “cream-skimming” habits by concentrating on easy-to-serve customers and enforcing hurdles for hard-to-serve consumers while analyzing effectiveness management operations in the Florida Welfare Transition Program (Hassan 2019).
Inter-group conflict and rivalry may make public workers participate in unethical leadership, primarily actions that have the motive to undermine others’ well-being and cause harm to other groups. According to social identity theory, when there is high competition among two groups, group members, including the leaders, can try to compromise the objectives of the other group to enhance or maintain social position (Abrams et al., 2021). Identity conflicts can lead to prejudice development and diminishing moral values towards other groups. Identity conflicts motivate individuals to participate in administrative evil.
Many questions pertaining to unethical leadership, especially in the civic sector, have not gotten explored. For instance, how unethical individuals that are well recognized by the public are selected by the public as leaders. What exactly are the societal, organizational, and individual determinants of unethical leadership in public institutions? How unethical leadership affects the behavior and work morale of public sector workers? What are long term and near implications of unethical leadership on economic, legal, and political institutions? It is crucial that PA researchers be more keen to these critical aspects and clearly evaluate the implications and causes of unethical leadership conduct in organizations and potential solutions.
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