Common traps that impact the adoption of moral compass in leadership

27th October 2022

Authors: Dr Kuldeep Kaur and Dr Mamun Ala

Good leaders understand how to make balance between ethics, reason and emotion; the ability to make right choices and decisions arises from their strong adherence to moral principles and values, in other words, their moral compass. Great leaders also have the courage to stand against unethical practices. Nevertheless, often some leaders fail in making ethical judgment as they fall into psychological traps. These traps blur the boundary between right and wrong, and individuals can become entangled inside webs of self-deception. This is likely to have serious consequences for employees and the organisation. The aim of this article is to highlight some common traps that impact the adoption of moral compass in leadership.

Since leaders' achievements depend on the numerous decisions they make or accept on a daily basis, they are especially susceptible to these psychological traps. These cognitive biases might cause followers to doubt a leader's integrity or authenticity, undermining their authority. Leaders can fall into one of the common psychological traps, which attract leaders towards unethical behaviour. These include:

  • Obedience to authority and using positional power – If the decision has a questioning capability, the leader exploits their power to engage in unethical behaviour, knowing that their subordinates will follow them without resistance. Sometimes subordinates are aware that the actions are unethical, but the urge to obey overrides their judgment. The leader tends to exploit this obedience.  
  • Anchoring trap and the need for closure – Leaders tasked with solving organisational difficulties may resort to band-aid approaches instead of harnessing the potential of creative thinking and teamwork. They reject views voiced by others and discourage enquiry, and the process of decision making is significantly weighted towards maintaining the leaders' status quo.
  • The false consensus and moral justification-- Leaders either ignore the breach or search for an easy way to make the course correction. They have a propensity to offer moral justification by relying on a false consensus and pointing to others who have made mistakes that are comparable (but were successful), or simply argue that it is done by everybody.

Based on the above discussion it can be argued that the absence of the culture of accountability within the organisation could make leaders susceptible to unethical practices. As suggested by Constantino (2015), unethical actions by leaders are linked to their perceived invincibility – they may do things on a whim, and then blame others for the undesirable consequences. Some leaders commonly give an excuse of  environmental pressures for their unethical conduct; others who have experienced mistreatment themselves have higher tendencies to display similar behaviour with their followers (Ayree et al. 2007; Odole 2018). This indicates that to promote sound ethical behaviors across the organization, it is important to implement a well-defined ethical code of conduct. At the same time there should be a sound mechanism to reinforce the importance of the code, promote ethical behaviour, report unethical behaviour and reward ethical behaviour. Essentially, leaders need to be good role models; in other words, sound ethical behaviour should start with the leaders. The following section further delves into the role of leaders in promoting strong values in the organisation. 

How can leaders practice ethical leadership?  

Unfortunately, in contemporary organisations, many ‘bosses’ do not understand the true definition of leadership. The position of power becomes the only indicator resulting in an increased authoritarian style and not complying with the boss is taken as a threat to positional power. The ability to lead ethically relies on one's understanding of the distinction between being a leader and a boss. An ethical leader is one that acts in accordance with their beliefs and values and acts as a mentor to their staff to help them become better versions of themselves. There are several ways in which one might exhibit ethical leadership and avoid falling subject to the aforementioned traps.

  • Begin with self-reflection regarding the morals and values you were raised with and use them as a guide while making decisions. It helps in building stronger relationships and increased performance (Gleeson, 2021).
  • Make decisions alongside your team, rather than simply communicating decisions to them. It will result in better solutions and increase team trust.
  • Most of us are victims of unconscious bias, and there are many ways in which we act and make biased decisions. For a leader, understanding the unconscious bias and being aware of it is important to act ethically.
  • As a leader, you should be conscious of your own behaviours because of the ripple effect they can have on others underneath you. You cannot expect loyalty from your staff if you are not willing to provide it in return. To develop an ethical corporation, you must lead by example.
  • Accept that as a leader and as a human being you cannot have the answer to every question. You can make mistakes. Rather than looking for reasons to justify bad behaviour, try accepting it and moving forward to find solutions.

To conclude, since we live in an information age, leaders are constantly under surveillance. The actions and interactions of a leader will have a significant impact on employees; this will also have an effect on the future of the organisation. Organisations that have ethical leadership are likely to have a positive culture, an improved brand image, higher levels of employee loyalty as well as customer loyalty  (Kuligowski, 2022). Taken together, the adoption of a moral compass in leadership is at the centre of organisational performance, growth and sustainable competitive advantage.