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Impact | Leadership under fire

Volume 20, Number 2
February 2014

Ann Peng’s research shows that leaders must look to their own behavior before they can expect good conduct from their followers.

peng-impact-14.jpgIn war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, non-combatants are sometimes beaten and even killed by the soldiers who should be protecting them. When we hear of such incidents we are shocked, and wonder what went wrong. Is it moral weakness of the soldiers? Is it the brutalizing effect of war? In her research Ivey Professor Ann Peng suggests that the problem may lie in a failure of leadership.

One of Peng’s recent papers, published in Journal of Applied Psychology, was based on a study of U.S. Army soldiers deployed in Iraq.   She and her co-authors posed the question: how is the ethical conduct of soldiers influenced by the behaviour of their leaders? Surveys were flown into areas of combat by helicopter, and completed by some 2500 soldiers. “We knew from the literature that leadership mattered,” says Peng. “We learned from this study that it mattered much more than leaders realized.”

In the study Peng and her co-authors looked at “abusive supervision,” a form of leadership that consists of hostile verbal and non-verbal behaviour, excluding physical contact. Examples range from yelling at a soldier and calling him “stupid,” to failing to give credit for good work done. They found that soldiers, when abused by their superiors, were much more likely to engage in severe unethical conduct. Such conduct included violations of the army code, such as defying orders, falsifying reports, or stealing. In extreme cases it involved the assault of innocent civilians.

When she began the study Peng wondered whether soldiers might be more tolerant of leadership behaviours when working in a high-stress combat zone. Not so. She found that abusive supervision affected soldiers in two ways. It reduced their “moral courage,” which is the ability to stand up to unethical behaviour, or resist the pressure to act unethically.  Abusive supervision also weakened a soldier’s identification with army values, such as respect, loyalty, and duty. “We found that a low score in either moral courage or identification with organizational values increased by up to four times the likelihood of mistreating a civilian,” says Peng.

In another study also published in the Academy of Management Journal, Peng and her co-authors looked at how workers react to the abusive supervision of another co-worker. This study surveyed full-time employees from 25 organizations in China, from both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. She found that abusive supervision directed toward a co-worker hindered the observing worker’s task performance. It also reduced the observer’s willingness to help the co-workers.  “Seeing a co-worker abused by your leader actually damages the trust relationship between you and your co-worker,” says Peng.

This finding was surprising to Peng because the existing literature suggests that workers who observe an injustice against a victim are willing to support the victim, and in some cases punish the perpetrator. “Most of these studies are simulated,” says Peng. “Our study was conducted in an organizational setting, and we found the opposite.”

Peng speculates that the trust relationship between workers can be undone in a number of ways. “If you are a victim of abuse by the leader, you see yourself as less valuable, and may even become resentful of your co-workers,” she says. “At the same time, when you see a leader being nasty to a co-worker, you may think that the co-worker is simply a low performer.”

Peng says that abusive and disrespectful conduct is not unusual in the workplace. Her two studies show that leaders are simply not aware of how important their behaviour is to the good conduct of their followers. “Many leaders tend to focus on efficiencies and getting the job done,” she says, “and ignore supportive behaviours like building personal connections and establishing trust.”  

When leaders are empathetic and open to feedback, the whole organization benefits. In another paper published in Academy of Management Journal, Peng and her co-authors found an ethical “trickle down” effect. This study was based on the same data as the Iraq study cited above. “We found that ethical leadership at the higher levels trickles down to lower levels, and ultimately creates an ethical culture across all organizational levels,” she says.

Peng is excited by this finding because it confirms what many people believe intuitively. “Our study provides us with clear evidence that leaders, by their behaviour, can create an ethical culture that pervades the entire organization,” she says. “When high level leaders are good role models, then lower levels of the organization will learn from that.”


Professor Ann Peng currently holds the Troost Professorship in Leadership. 


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