An Examination of the Contribution of Dispositional Affect on Ethical Lapses

Journal of Business Ethics 111 (2):179-193 (2012)
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Abstract

The popular press and academic research has focused primarily on the characteristics of corporate leaders. Subordinates have been studied much less frequently than leaders and yet they play a pivotal role in destructive leadership processes. An area holding significant potential to bring clarity to subordinates’ ability to withstand (or succumb) to pressures from superiors is dispositional affect. In our exploratory study, we examine how specific affective states influence subordinates’ unethical behavior. We performed an experiment with 63 mid-level managers having significant work experience. Participants were given ethical scenarios and asked to assess their intentions to comply with their superiors’ requests to engage in unethical conduct. The participants also completed the positive affect negative affect schedule (PANAS) which provides measures of affective states. Our results provide support for theory-based predictions. The findings of our study make important contributions and have implications to both practice and theory. First, we identify certain affective states that encourage subordinates to adopt the behavior of a conformer or colluder and thus be susceptible to their superiors’ unethical directives. Second, our results suggest the need for training programs to assist employees in managing affect in the work place and consideration of organizational changes that provide a culture of empowerment of its employees. Third, unlike a large majority of prior research, we measured naturally occurring affective states rather than providing a contrived (and potentially exaggerated) triggering event to elicit affective states. Fourth, we examined specific affective states rather than examining only general positive and negative valence categories.

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