Want to build an ethical work culture? Try backing off

Tempting as it may be to keep a close eye on employees to make sure they are doing the right thing, new research reveals ethical behaviour thrives in environments of trust, not constant surveillance.

Building a robust ethical culture is a top priority for most organisations. Leaders are expected to set the tone by inspiring and motivating their teams to act with integrity.

But how can managers ensure these values are being upheld? On the surface, micromanagement may seem like the solution.

After all, how can you guarantee ethical conduct if you are not keeping a close eye on your staff?

However, new research by Monash Business School Department of Management lecturer Dr Ui Young Sun has revealed a surprising truth: constant surveillance can undermine the very behaviour it seeks to promote.

 The gap between theory and practice

Dr Sun said there was a critical disconnect in the current discourse surrounding ethical leadership.

“Many organisations agree that ethical leadership is important, and they invest in training programs to promote such leadership in their workplaces,” he said.

“However, there has been very little discussion on ‘how’ managers can translate this concept into practical leadership behaviours.”

He said his work aimed to bridge this gap between theory and practice.

“I began with the question: ‘What do managers need to do to promote ethics at work’,” he said.

“One way to achieve this is to reward those who adhere to moral principles and to punish those who engage in ethical misconduct.”

However, this creates a dilemma: how can you gather accurate information about employee behaviour without resorting to micromanagement?

What not to do when practicing ethical leadership

To answer this question, Dr Sun conducted two studies to explore the relationship between ethical leadership, micromanagement, and employee behaviour.
The first used a scenario-based experiment where participants imagined themselves as employees experiencing varying levels of ethical leadership and close monitoring.

These scenarios revealed that ethical leadership effectively reduces employee uncertainty, encouraging employees to shift their focus from self-interest to helping their colleagues.

The second study, conducted through field surveys, examined how ethical leadership and close monitoring, in combination, influenced employees’ sense of uncertainty and, ultimately, their engagement in helping behaviours.

The results were definitive: constant scrutiny is counterproductive because it makes employees so anxious they focus on avoiding mistakes ahead of collaborating with colleagues.

“These findings imply that if managers want to promote ethics at work, they should step away from micromanagement, even if it looks like a viable means,” Dr Sun said.

“This understanding is critical, as it provides specific guidance to managers regarding what not to do when practising ethical leadership.”

Fostering a culture of trust and communication

So, if micromanagement is off the table, how can leaders find the right balance between monitoring and trust?

The study suggests one possible alternative is open communication.

“For example, managers may invite employees to open discussions, encouraging them to share their concerns or struggles that occurred while they were trying to keep ethical principles,” he said.

“These struggles may include a range of issues, from the conflicts between personal and professional responsibilities to dealing with bribery and corruption.”
By fostering open dialogue, Dr Sun said leaders can gain a deeper understanding of their employees’ decision-making processes, ultimately creating a more ethical work environment.

A framework for ethical workplaces

While his current research shows micromanagement is not an effective means of promoting ethical conduct, Dr Sun acknowledges there is an ongoing challenge.

“Managers need information in order to fairly reward or punish ethical or unethical behaviours,” he said.

“So, the question remains: What else can managers do, if micromanagement is not a viable means to collect such information?”

Dr Sun said he hopes to provide the answer in his next study, which will explore a range of effective alternatives. His goal is to create a framework where leaders can access necessary information while fostering a culture of trust and open communication.

This will be crucial, he said, in building truly ethical workplaces.

“More broadly, I hope my research can ignite conversations among researchers and practitioners about ‘how’ leaders should promote ethical behaviours,” he said.

Published on 18 Jun 2024