Thursday, 19 July 2012

Self-serving leaders levy an emotional toll on those who aren't getting their dues

How does it feel to work under a self-serving leader? We know how horrendous the extremes can be - dictators or fraudulent CEOs can quickly wreck lives - but more commonly the problem is likely to be bad feeling owing to uncertainty about where you stand. That's the conclusion of research from the University of Leuven, Belgium, which also suggests that people find it easier to make peace with these situations when they feel they are getting their personal dues.

Jeroen Camps, Stijn Decoster, and Jeroen Stouten developed and validated a Self-Serving Leadership Scale, involving just those behaviours that involve advancing the leader's own interests, rather than other toxic qualities such as abusive behaviour. This was given to 134 employed participants alongside a set of items indicating the extent to which they felt harmed by their leader, such as 'my leader has disadvantaged me'. In addition, the participants completed three measures of organisational justice: procedural (are rules applied consistently?), interpersonal (am I treated with respect) and distributive (am I getting the outcomes I deserve?).

Camps and his colleagues predicted that the last measure, distributive justice, would offset the lack of trust in a leader seen as self-serving. Just so: when distributive justice was low, self-serving leadership was strongly related to perceptions of harm, but when it was high, the relationship weakened. The pattern remained even when controlling for other types of justice: what mattered was simply the sense that you haven't been stiffed thus far.

 The team looked at what lies underneath this in a further study which brought new measures into play, specifically looking at levels of uncertainty and of negative emotions. This experimental study used a hypothetical situation, with the 87 participants being asked to imagine that their chances of a potential promotion depended entirely on the decisions of their boss. In one condition the boss was presented as entirely unbiased, whereas the second, self-serving condition, presented the boss as willing to make decisions that directly benefit themselves, such as promoting someone favoured by influences in the company. Participants were then told either that they were offered the promotion or passed over, providing or withholding distributive justice from them.

Participants with a self-serving boss indicated that they were more uncertain about their job, boss and overall situation. Missing out on the promotion led participants to be more upset, measured by ratings of emotion words like angry and frustrated, and that upset was magnified when the boss was presented as self-serving. In this promotion-less, no-justice condition, the high uncertainty and higher negative emotions were bound together. Conversely, when participants received justice in the form of the promotion, levels of uncertainty were decoupled from negative emotions. The boss's motives made no difference to their emotional state.

These studies suggest that when we suspect a leader is working to their own agenda, the resultant uncertainty can be neutralised when we feel we are getting the outcomes we deserve. The authors note that this can be interpreted as participants accepting that 'leaders can act fair and ethically even though their motives are inherently selfish' - but can also be seen as a step away from ethics entirely, into a myopic mentality: I'm alright, Jack. Further research could help us tease these explanations apart.

ResearchBlogging.orgJeroen Camps, Stijn Decoster, & Jeroen Stouten (2012). My Share Is Fair, So I Don’t Care: The Moderating Role of Distributive Justice in the Perception of Leaders’ Self-Serving Behavior Journal of Personnel Psychology , 11 (1), 49-59 DOI: 10.1027/1866-5888/a000058

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