Nov. 30, 2021

Haskayne researcher digs into how to promote morally courageous behaviour at work

Tunde Ogunfowora studies the role of leaders in fostering 'risky' behaviour in the workplace

Employees who speak up for what’s right or blow the whistle on something that’s wrong in the workplace are a crucial factor in addressing any corporate misconduct or safety violations on the job. Yet this “morally courageous behaviour” (MCB) often comes with significant personal risk for the person speaking out, including serious psychological, financial and even social ramifications.

“Basically, people who engage in these types of behaviours tend to be ostracized, they deal with anxiety. Essentially, think whistle blowers. Career derailment is a possibility,” says Dr. Tunde Ogunfowora, associate professor in organizational behaviour and human resources at the Haskayne School of Business.

Tunde Ogunfowora

Tunde Ogunfowora

Marnie Burkhart, Jazhart Sudios

Ogunfowora and his colleagues, Addison Maerz at Queen’s University and Christianne Varty at York University, studied how an organization’s leader may encourage employees to speak out in a morally courageous way. “We looked specifically at the leaders who role model moral behaviour in the workplace and how, or why, that translates to employees engaging in these behaviours,” he says.

In "How Do Leaders Foster Morally Courageous Behaviour in Employees? Leader Role Modelling, Moral Ownership, and Felt Obligation," published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Ogunfowora and his colleagues found that ethical role modelling from a leader influences MCB by nurturing employee moral ownership and a sense of obligation to the organization.

“There are two things that can explain why people would engage in this potentially risky behaviour,” he says. “One is that the leaders instil in them a strong mental moral ownership: ‘This is the right thing to do, I'm going to take ownership, or enact that behaviur even though it's going to be risky to me.’ We also discovered that ethically oriented leaders inspire in their employees a strong sense of obligation to help the organization do the right thing.”

Further, employees who strongly believe in their own ability to execute “a moral action” are more likely to respond in a positive way to a leader’s ethical role modelling and are more likely to act with moral courage.

“The employee must have what we call moral efficacy,” says Ogunfowora. “The employee must believe that they have the capacity, the strength, the drive, to actually go through with it. Not everyone who reports to a leader who is role modelling these behaviours will actually engage in morally courageous behaviour. It really depends on their own efficacy, or belief in themselves.”

Training leaders may lead to more morally courageous behaviour

The researchers argue that leaders don’t always recognize that their employees look to them for guidance on how to act morally at work or what to do if they see any safety violations.

“Training aimed at creating helping managers be better ethical and safety role models may help to increase the incidence of morally courageous behaviours in employees,” says Ogunfowora. “To really reap the benefits of ethical role modelling, employees must be empowered to believe in themselves and provided with access to necessary resources such as safe and anonymous reporting structures.”

While leaders have a tremendous influence on the people who work for them, that influence is not always positive, and it’s not always acknowledged. “The argument has been, for decades now, that we tend to emulate, or imitate, the behaviours of people in positions of authority and power. We look up to the supervisor, if the supervisor comes to work late all the time, then we learn that it's okay to do that,” he says.

In other cases, employees see that their leaders don’t always mean what they say and “doing the right thing” is tolerated only as long as those actions don’t threaten the company’s bottom line. 

“But if you have a leader engaged in moral behaviours or safe workplace behaviours, you’re more likely to engage in morally courageous behaviour or whistle blowing, because the leader inspires you to take ownership,” he says. “And you’ve developed a strong sense of obligation to help the organization do the right thing.”


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