Ethical leadership and followers' behavioural change: a critical literature review of ten peer-reviewed articles

First of all, many authors highlight the importance of the relationship between the leader and the follower (Trevino et al., 2000; Walumbwa et al., 2011; Gabriel, 2015; Thiel et al., 2018; Owens et al., 2019). Some of the authors (Walumbwa et al., 2011; Thiel et al., 2018) call it leader-member exchange relationship and go back to the social exchange theory by Blau (1964) who explains how ethical leaders inspire followers to behave up to their desired expectations. Some other authors also refer to the social learning theory by Bandura (1977) reported by Brown, Trevino and Harrison, (2005), which focuses on learning by observation and imitation. Thiel et al. (2018) also proved that the bigger number of collaborators a leader has, the lower the efficacy of his/her ethical leadership, as it takes time, energy, costs to build and maintain a relationship with a collaborator.

Although all these authors (Trevino et al., 2000; Walumbwa et al., 2011; Gabriel, 2015; Thiel et al., 2018; Owens et al., 2019) underlined how crucial it is the relationship between leader and follower, while all of them talked about the central role of the leader, and some of them tried to explain internal affective and cognitive processes for leader's moral behaviour (Sekerka et al., 2007) and contextual and cultural factors impacting on rationality and ethical decisions (Miska et al., 2014), almost none of them studied what the followers' experience with their leaders is like. Only Gabriel (2015) focused on the followers' perception of their leaders and, for example, he discovered, during his field research and interviews, that leadership passes through care and it is recognised by the followers only when they feel cared for by their leaders.

Secondly, many authors state the positive influence of ethical leadership on employee productivity assuming that leadership is exercised by managers or people at higher levels in the hierarchy on their followers (Jones, 2005; Sekerka et al., 2007; Stouten et al., 2010; Walumbwa et al., 2011; Thiel et al., 2018; Owens et al., 2019). Some authors even state that it is important for leaders not only to be moral people, but also to be moral managers and to express their ethical views and take explicit positions about ethical issues, so that all empoloyees can perceive their ethical standing and not only the ones who are in a close and interpersonal relationship with them (Trevino et al., 2000).

It seems that the role of the ethical leader is crucial to increase employee productivity and that having ethical leadership in place within a company could be convenient. However, none of these authors who state the positive impact of ethical leadership on employee productivity (Jones, 2005; Sekerka et al., 2007; Stouten et al., 2010; Walumbwa et al., 2011; Thiel et al., 2018; Owens et al., 2019) seems to have investigated the followers' perspective and experience. There may seem to be an interest in the results of ethical leadership in terms of profit rather than in terms of attention to the person. It may look as if employees at a lower level were passive targets who may be treated instrumentally.

Last but not least, it seems that most of the authors are interested more in the generalisability of their findings by taking a quantitative research approach rather than in deepening the knowledge of human life in terms of feelings and experiences. Michalos (2013), Sekerka et al. (2007), Miska et al. (2014) and Jones et al. (2005) aimed at creating respectively their own theoretical model which could explain how ethical behaviour can take place but these theoretical models have still to be experimented and verified in practice. In addition, out of the remaining six publications, two thirds of them (the ones by Stouten et al., 2010; Walumbwa et al., 2011; Thiel et al., 2018; Owens et al., 2019) administered questionnaires in order to collect their data. A weak point of questionnaires may well be that we cannot go deeply in people's life experiences and get narratives about interviewees' feelings, emotions, cognition or meta-cognition dynamics (Saunders, 2012).

In conclusion, the initial question seems to be justified by the evidence of how little research has been done on the ethical leaders' followers. Out of ten articles, only Gabriel (2015) spoke about how the followers perceive their leaders and what followers go through emotionally when dealing with ethical leaders, but we should go further and investigate how and why there is any behavioural change on the followers' side, if any. This follower-centred perspective seems worth taking so as to investigate, not only through a quantitative method but also through a qualitative method, subordinates' experience in order to get more insights about the relationship between ethical leadership and subordinates' behavioural change. For example, it could help us understand if followers could learn to exercise ethical leadership themselves and we could also probably discover any other possible benefits of ethical leadership, like an increase in job satisfaction, self-esteem, happiness in the workplace, pro-activity, etc... beside the commonly stated economic advantage which is the increased employee productivity.


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Rethinking the Adaptive Leadership model through the Italian Adaptive Leadership Behavior Questionnaire

Da quando Heifetz ha creato il modello di leadership adattiva nel 1994, la letteratura accademica è stata popolata da molte pubblicazioni qualitative che hanno studiato sfide adattive e come il modello di leadership adattiva possa essere utilizzato per affrontarle. Sembra che poca ricerca sulla leadership adattiva sia stata portata avanti da una prospettiva quantitativa relativa alla misurazione di comportamenti di leadership adattiva o alla possibilità di verificare la validità del modello a sei dimensioni di Heifetz. La mia tesi di dottorato va in questa direzione ed ha lo scopo di misurare la percezione di comportamenti di leadership adattiva nel contesto aziendale italiano e di comprendere se il modello di leadership adattiva di Heifetz (1994) può essere applicato alla cultura italiana. I risultati ed il contributo alla conoscenza di questa ricerca possono essere letti nella tesi: Novellini, P. (2023) Rethinking the Adaptive Leadership model through the Italian Adaptive Leadership Behavior Questionnaire, PhD thesis, University of Sunderland.

Scarica la tesi in formato pdf


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