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30-04-2020 | Original Paper | Issue 3/2021

Journal of Business Ethics 3/2021

Leader Goal Orientation and Ethical Leadership: A Socio-Cognitive Approach of the Impact of Leader Goal-Oriented Behavior on Employee Unethical Behavior

Journal:
Journal of Business Ethics > Issue 3/2021
Authors:
Dennis J. Marquardt, Wendy J. Casper, Maribeth Kuenzi
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Abstract

Ethical leadership is an important construct in the literature on behavioral ethics in organizations, given its link with employee attitudes and behaviors. What remains unclear, however, is what leader characteristics are associated directly with ethical leader perceptions and indirectly with employee unethical behavior. In this paper, we use a socio-cognitive lens to integrate goal orientation theory with the literature on ethical behavior in organizations. Specifically, we propose that certain patterns of managers’ goal-oriented behavior provide signals and cues to employees about their managers’ ethical leadership, which then relates to employee displays of more unethical behavior. Using a sample of 265 manager–employee dyads, our findings largely support our claims. We found that leader performance-avoid goal orientation was negatively related to perceptions of ethical leadership and positively related to employee unethical behavior. Moderated mediation tests indicated that the positive indirect effect of leader performance-avoid goal orientation on employee unethical behavior through perceptions of ethical leadership was attenuated by higher levels of leader learning goal orientation. Taken together, these findings suggest that when leaders emphasize avoiding failure while downplaying the importance of personal learning and development, employees perceive them as less ethical and are more willing to engage in ethical misconduct. We discuss implications of our findings for both theory and practice.

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