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Thematics :

We think that ethics go hand-in-hand with discretion as a rule. In other words, we act in accordance with our values, even though we don’t advertise the fact. This is a stance that three researchers – including NEOMA’s Dongkyu Kim – are challenging in the world of work, arguing that when model managers talk about ethical behaviour, it encourages their peers to follow suit.

It is not easy to start a conversation about ethical issues when you are working in a company. Studies have shown that employees view this kind of talk as a risky exercise, and that they shy away from voicing their opinions about what they can see in the workplace.

Employees are tempted in this direction because our system of morals associates virtue with discretion: people who openly display their ethical commitment and values risk losing their credibility.

Research into the army in South Korea

The article by the three researchers refutes these findings in two ways. First, no, it is not unsafe to talk about ethics in an organisation; and, no again, virtue and discretion are not necessarily bedfellows. Quite the opposite, in fact: leaders who are open about their beliefs encourage their peers to behave in turn like ethical managers. They convey confidence and motivate them, and they may also act as role models: we look at them, admire them and want to imitate them.

Rather than surveying employees in a company, the study focused on 316 members of the South Korean army drawn from 24 regiments. What led the researchers to make this choice? It is an established fact that soldiers of the same rank have strong bonds based on camaraderie and, conversely, that they keep a marked social distance from their subordinates and superiors. It is, in other words, an environment that is conducive to observing inter-peer imitation processes.

Are peers more persuasive than bosses?

The process starts when managers who are thought of as role models talk about ethics. They give advice and issue instructions, encouraging behaviour they consider to be virtuous. They express their opinions – positive or negative – about the events they are witness to, and make sense of them from an ethical standpoint. They worry about what seems improper to them, and remind others of the rules they must observe. Furthermore, they challenge certain ingrained habits and come up with solutions.

The fact that “senders” and “receivers” share the same social status and the same perceptions about things means their words are more effective. Managers who talk to their peers have an advantage compared to their superiors, even though numerous studies have also shown that ethical discourse from above likewise produces results.

Two mechanisms for turning words into action

What are the mechanisms that can “convert” the words of model managers into ethical behaviour among their peers? The researchers identified two.

The first they call “moral efficacy”, when peers feel they are being encouraged to act ethically. They form their own strong opinions, gaining confidence in themselves and their abilities. They acquire the psychological resources and motivation that will enable them to act ethically and even take initiatives – including when they are faced with extreme situations, when it is tougher to stay true to your values.

The second mechanism is based on the ability of ethical managers to represent “role models”, figures whom their peers are keen to copy. This might be a manager who openly expresses disagreement when questionable activities are uncovered, or who makes suggestions about how to consolidate ethical approaches.

“Role models” fuelling the spread of ethics

These role models have a key influence. If ethical managers represent the robust embodiment of this figure, they will act as a huge spur to their peers to become ethical managers. In the opposite case, the ripple effect will be much more finite.

But their perception is subjective, meaning it varies from one individual to the next. And it is hardly possible for model managers to be beyond reproach in every single situation. Some peers may well be witness to less ethical behaviour or observe it less often than their colleagues.

Nevertheless, this aspect of the role model is still a powerful lever. When managers see one of their colleagues acting ethically and being rewarded for it, they are encouraged to imitate him or her. Why? Because they identify the expectations of their organisation and its response to ethical attitudes through the behaviour of this colleague – and not just as a function of their own experience.

Lateral ethical copycat effect

This study is insightful in several ways: first and foremost, it shows that in ethical matters, example and inspiration do not only come from above; there is also a lateral ethical copycat effect.

The second lesson is that talking about ethics is not only authorised, but recommended. It goes without saying that it is still important to act in accordance with your values to ensure there is consistency between intention and reality. But putting these acts into words, their verbal decoding, gives a real boost to the learning process and the development of desirable behaviours.

The authors suggest that organisations create a work environment where employees feel empowered to speak frankly about ethics. In addition, they can openly encourage behaviours they deem desirable if their managers take up an explicit position. In this way, the values to be promoted will be shared more effectively and put into practice more widely.

Find out more

Kim, D. Choi & S.Y. Son, Does Ethical Voice Matter? Examining How Peer Team Leader Ethical Voice and Role Modeling Relate to Ethical Leadership, Journal of Business Ethics, 2023. doi.org/10.1007/s10551-023-05477-y