If your boss is pleasant one day, but lashes out the next, they may suffer from a phenomenon known as moral licensing.
Researchers found that if a boss acts in an ethical way, they feel this good behaviour gives them a pass to mistreat employees.
And walking the straight line also causes ego depletion, which researchers say can be combated by taking regular breaks during the day.
WHY DO BOSSES EXHIBIT MORAL LICENSING?
First, displaying morally laudable behavior is a way for people to accumulate moral credits.
After a bosses feels they have gathered enough of these credits, they can use them to ‘purchase’ the right to abuse their employees.
Although they now acting in this manner is wrong, they feel as if they can ‘afford’ them because they have a ‘positive balance of moral credits’.
Second, displaying morally laudable behavior can also bestow on actors the credentials of having a commendable moral self-regard.
Moral self-regard, which is a part of people’s working self-concept, is a way for people to measure how moral they think they are, which changes from one day to the next.
People’s current moral self-regard also provides a context for judging their subsequent actions in the short term.
‘Once depleted, people’s capacity to exert self-control on subsequent activities is severely limited, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will succumb to temptations and aggressive impulses.’
Although ego depletion is a quick fix, researchers from Michigan State University say ‘dealing with moral licensing is trickier’.
This concept is an idea that people feel they have earned the right to act in a negative manner after doing something good.
‘Ironically, when leaders felt mentally fatigued and morally licensed after displays of ethical behavior, they were more likely to be abusive toward their subordinates on the next day,’ said Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at Michigan State University, in a recent press release.
The study explains two reason for bosses to exhibit moral licensing.
‘First, displaying morally laudable behavior is a way for people to accumulate moral credits.’
And the second reason is, ‘displaying morally laudable behavior can also bestow on actors the credentials of having a commendable moral self-regard.’
Johnson and MSU students observed 172 supervisors over a few days in a variety of industries such as retail, education, manufacturing and healthcare.
The purpose of this study was to understand the consequences of ethical behavior for leaders who exhibit it.
Johnson said it’s not easy to be ethical, as it turns out.
‘Being ethical means leaders often have to suppress their own self-interest (they must do ‘what’s right’ as opposed to ‘what’s profitable’), and they have to monitor not only the performance outcomes of subordinates but also the means (to ensure that ethical/appropriate practices were followed),’ he explained
HOW A BAD BOSS CAN MAKE THE WHOLE TEAM MEAN
Researchers studied 51 teams of employees from 10 firms in China.
Average team size was about six workers and the teams performed a variety of functions including customer service, technical support and research and development.
The study looked at nonphysical abuse such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails.
Employees who directly experienced such abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team.
At the same time, the entire team ‘descended into conflicts’
The study was replicated in a controlled laboratory setting in the United States, with nearly 300 people participating.
Researchers found that those in the management position who displayed ethical behavior suffered from ego depletion and moral licensing, which led them to be more abusive to those who worked under them.
Bosses ridiculed, insulted and expressed anger towards their employees and went as far as to give them the silent treatment or remind them of past mistakes.
In dealing with this issue of entitlement bosses feel, Johnson suggested companies could consider formally requiring ethical behavior. ‘
‘If such behavior is required, then it’s more difficult for people to feel they’ve earned credit for performing something that is mandatory,’ he said.
‘A sense of moral license is more likely when people feel they voluntarily or freely exhibited the behavior.’
Another suggestion is to formally reward ethical behavior with social praise or even money.
But, if this is to be implemented, rewards or praise need to quickly follow one’s good behavior in order to counteract the moral licensing, explained Johnson.