Viewed as evil by Tanzanian locals, the Zanzibar leopard was aggressively hunted and eventually eradicated. There have been a number of unconfirmed sightings in the nearly 20 years since it was added to the list of extinct species, so its total annihilation is debatable. But the fact that public indifference and contempt were its death warrant is not.
Ethical leaders can also be hard to spot. Some people even consider them to be an outdated and dying breed. Fortunately, however, despite potshots from a culture somewhat unappreciative and incredulous of those who convey values and morals in the workplace, ethical leadership is not extinct. Thank goodness!
Talent development endangered
What is endangered, however, is awareness within the talent development community of how ethical leadership drives employee motivation, performance, and satisfaction. This is concerning because in the absence of leaders who place integrity and employee well-being ahead of duplicity and self-interest, all of our efforts are futile. This is not hyperbole; this is the unvarnished truth.
We can design, develop, and deliver award-winning training, then cross our fingers and hope it will drive employee performance. But what happens when employees leave training and return to work only to face unscrupulous and uncaring leaders who demotivate them and cause them to hate their jobs?
Talent development can no longer wonder why well-trained employees neglect to apply new knowledge, skills, and abilities in the workplace, nor should we accept blame when they underperform as a result of circumstances beyond our control. Instead, we must analyze employee performance issues holistically, from top to bottom, beginning with the influence of leadership.
Leadership influences performance
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 27 percent of employees think their leaders are unethical. At the very least that perception, accurate or not, erodes employee motivation, satisfaction, and performance. Employees who feel overworked, underappreciated, shortchanged—even exploited—will underperform. Worse, working for leaders they perceive to be unethical can precipitate wrongdoing by employees themselves.
When employees think leadership is engaged in unethical behavior, they are more likely to make unethical decisions and engage in reciprocal deviance (retaliating against employers for perceived injustices) and parallel deviance (committing deviant acts against third party victims, such as co-workers and clients). An organization without an ethical leader is like the Serengeti without a species of leopard. The entire organizational ecosystem is negatively affected and employee performance is endangered.
Blatant examples of unscrupulous leadership can be seen in news headlines like: “CEO Arrested for Fraud!” But leadership decisions don’t have to sink to such depths to be deemed morally wrong by employees. Less egregious examples include taking advantage of employees, taking them for granted, taking credit for their achievements, or withholding anticipated rewards and recognition from them. Such behavior undermines employee trust.
Consider leaders, for example, who invest in extensive recycling programs to save natural resources yet seem to make little or no effort to recycle human resources. They claim that employees are their most valuable asset, yet rather than retaining and retraining workers whose technical skills have become obsolete, they merely dispose of them. Paper, plastic, and aluminum recycling bins now occupy office space where people once sat.
Similarly, as if swapping incandescent bulbs for LEDs, other leaders have adopted the practice of replacing full-time workers with part-time, contract, and offshore labor to avoid federally mandated healthcare costs. “Sure,” they say, “the replacements may not be as bright and probably won’t last as long, but they’re more efficient!”
Don’t misunderstand. Whether leaders are morally justified in displacing workers in favor of more cost-effective staffing solutions is irrelevant. What is absolutely pertinent to talent development, and a barrier to its effectiveness, is how decisions like these are viewed by employees and how those perceptions ultimately affect employee performance.
When employees believe leaders have reneged on the psychological contract between them and their employer (vis-à-vis workload, wages, benefits, job security, and the like) employee motivation, performance, and job satisfaction all suffer. It is an employee performance death spiral that no amount of training can reverse. So what is talent development to do?
Ethical leadership is essential
If we are to truly develop talent, we must look beyond training and recognize the many factors that affect employee motivation, work performance, and job satisfaction—the most significant of which may be leadership. Although their impact on employee performance is often overlooked, ethical leaders are particularly invaluable.
According to the equity theory of motivation, employees are more motivated when they perceive they are being treated fairly. Expectancy theory expounds on this idea by explaining that employees are motivated when they believe their hard work will result in good job performance and that good job performance will earn them attractive rewards. In order to motivate employees, ethical leaders recognize and reward desired performance and hold underperformers accountable.
Transformational leaders take it a step further. Not only are they ethical, they put the needs of employees ahead of self-interest and make employees feel absolutely vital to the organization. They engage employees on a moral level, inspire them by providing meaningful work, mentor them on an individual basis to increase their self-efficacy, and motivate them to achieve higher levels of performance than they may have intended or even thought possible themselves.
Moreover, when employees perceive a leader to be ethical, they also experience higher levels of job satisfaction. One reason is that, according to attraction-selection-attrition theory, employees are attracted to organizations whose values are congruent with their own. Another explanation is that ethical leadership reduces moral conflict, thereby promoting a work environment that fosters a stronger connection between leaders and followers. Additionally, ethical leadership facilitates employee job satisfaction through a perception that leaders are fulfilling their moral obligations to employees.
Simply stated, ethical leadership is an essential component of any talent development strategy, without which we cannot succeed. Does your talent development team analyze employee performance holistically, from top to bottom, beginning with the influence of leadership? Can they recognize symptoms of unethical leadership, as well as its impact on job performance? Does your executive development program include an ethics-related curriculum?
If we are to truly develop talent, we must acknowledge that unethical leadership stands in our way. As a profession, we must address employee performance holistically and influence senior leaders and executives to create the ethical conditions necessary for employees to achieve high levels of performance.
We may not be able to save the Zanzibar leopard, but we absolutely must advocate on behalf of ethical leaders in order to truly create a world that works better. After all, if indifference toward ethical leadership were to cause its extinction, talent development itself would be critically endangered.