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Moral licensing - When leaders behave ethically, they could be storing up trouble.
How is your day going? Have you shouted at anyone yet? If you have, it could be because you are just rebalancing your moral compass. If your instinct is to disagree, to respond that everyone has a set moral level then you might want to review the results of a study entitled “When ethical leader behavior breaks bad: How ethical behavior can turn abusive via ego depletion and moral licensing.”
The study by Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at Michigan State University, followed the behaviour of leaders and supervisors across a range of industries. It reveals that in some circumstances behaving ethically and supervising ethical behaviour in others can not only be mentally fatiguing but can also lead to something which the authors call moral licensing. In essence, the combination of ethical behaviour and stress can lead people to believe subconsciously that they have built up the right (the moral licence) to then behave poorly towards subordinates.
Commenting on the study Russell Johnson said “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.” Whilst further research subject is required, the study’s authors suggest that one way of circumventing moral licensing is to include an expectation of ethical behaviour within job descriptions. The explanation for this is that when people feel they have voluntarily exhibited ethical behaviour then they are more likely to experience a personal backlash than when they are merely doing what is expected of them.