Doethics really matter? understanding group reactions to unethical leadership

Research output: Types of ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Most research on ethical leadership has disregarded the role of group processes, and particularly of group membership. Using social identity theory of leadership as a framework, this thesis aims to understand the impact of ethical and unethical leaders on group members’ perceptions about the leader, as well as to investigate under which circumstances group members may be willing to accept and endorse unethical leaders. To test these ideas, seven experimental studies and one longitudinal study were conducted. Study 1 (N = 90) manipulated whether participants evaluated an ethical or unethical leader, providing empirical support to the idea that unethical leaders have a less positive impact on group members, especially if they belong to the outgroup (N = 129). Study 3 (N = 229) also manipulated target status, showing that unethical behavior displayed by a regular member had a less negative impact when compared to unethical leaders. Study 4 (N = 125) revealed that the intention of behavior is an important factor too, as group members considered the group-promoting leader more prototypical, warmer and competent. Attributions of behavior also changed based on the context (Study 5, N = 226), with leaders’ behavior attributed more to internal and stable dispositions in an intragroup (compared to an intergroup) context. Studies 6 and 7 (Ns = 178, 170) extended these findings by showing that attributions were also shaped by the outcome of the behavior to the group. Moreover, leaders who benefited the group (even if they were unethical) were perceived as more competent and more endorsed. Study 8 (N = 260) showed that when the outcome was positive to the group, group members were more willing to accept unethical leadership and to exert less social control. Taken together, the results suggest that leaders play an important role in setting ethical and normative behavior, but also that, under certain circumstances, leaders’ ethicality might be overlooked, as long as the behavior is in the group’s best interest.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Kent
  • Moura, Georgina Randsley de, Supervisor, External person
  • Abrams, Dominic, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Award date16 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Leadership
  • ethics
  • ethical leadership
  • organizational psychology
  • social psychology
  • Deviance


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