It is unnerving when people in authority positions behave inconsistently, especially when it comes to matters of morality. We call such people “Jekyll and Hyde characters,” based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella in which the same person behaved very morally in some situations and very immorally in others. Whereas the actual title of Stevenson’s work was the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, recent research suggests that Jekyll and Hyde bosses may not be so unusual. In fact, behaving morally like Dr. Jekyll may cause bosses to subsequently behave immorally like Mr. Hyde.    

Researchers at Michigan State University (Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson) asked employees to describe the behavior of their bosses from one day to the next. Bosses who behaved more ethically on the first day were more likely to behave abusively towards their subordinates the next day. For instance, the more that bosses on the first day did things like: 1) define success not just by results but also by the way that they are obtained, 2) set an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics, or 3) listen to what their employees had to say, the more likely they were on the next day to ridicule employees, to give employees the silent treatment, or to talk badly about employees behind their back. Does being in a position of authority predispose people to be hypocrites?

Not necessarily. Lin, Ma, and Johnson found two reasons why ethical leader behavior can, as they put it, “break bad.” One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day. Throughout the day we are called upon to behave in ways that require self-control, such as not yelling at the driver who cut us off on the way to work, not having that second helping of delicious dessert at lunch, and not expressing negative emotions we may be feeling about bosses or co-workers who don’t seem to be behaving appropriately, in our view. Because we have fewer self-control resources later in the day, we are more susceptible to succumb to the temptation to behave unethically. In like fashion, bosses who behave ethically on one day (like Dr. Jekyll) may feel ego depleted from having exerted self-control, making them more prone to behave abusively towards their subordinates the next day (like Mr. Hyde).

Distinguishing between moral licensing and ego depletion is important, both conceptually and practically. At the conceptual level, a key difference between the two is whether the self is playing the role of object or subject. When people take themselves as the object of attention they want to see themselves and their behavior positively, for example, as ethical. As object (which William James called the me-self), self-processes consist of reflecting and evaluating. When operating as subject, the self engages in regulatory activity, in which people align their behavior with meaningful standards coming from within or from external sources; James called this the I-self. Moral licensing is a self-as-object process, in which people want to see themselves in certain positive ways (e.g., ethical), so that when they behave ethically they are free, at least temporarily, to behave in not so ethical ways. Ego depletion is a self-as-subject process, in which having exerted self-control in the service of regulation makes people, at least temporarily, less capable of doing so.

The founding father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, famously proclaimed that, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Accordingly, the distinction between moral licensing and ego depletion lends insight into the applied question of how to mitigate the tendency for ethical leader behavior to break bad. The moral licensing explanation suggests that one way to go is to make it more difficult for bosses to make self-attributions for their ethical behavior. For instance, suppose that an organization had very strong norms for its authorities to behave ethically. When authorities in such an organization behave ethically, they may attribute their behavior to the situation (strong organizational norms) rather than to themselves. In this example authorities are behaving morally but are not licensing themselves to behave abusively. 

The ego depletion explanation suggests other ways to weaken the tendency for bosses’ ethical behavior to morph into abusiveness. For instance, much like giving exercised muscles a chance to rest and recover, ensuring that bosses are not constantly in the mode of exerting self-control may allow for their self-regulatory resources to be replenished. It also has been shown that people’s beliefs about how ego depleted they are influences their tendency to exert self-control, over and above how ego depleted they actually are. In a research study appropriately titled, “Ego depletion—is it all in your head?," Veronika Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton found that people who believed they were less ego depleted after engaging in self-control were more likely to exert self-control in a subsequent activity. People differ in their beliefs about the consequences of exercising self-control. For some, having to exert self-control is thought to be de-energizing whereas for others it is not believed to be de-energizing. Bosses who believe that exerting self-control is not de-energizing may be less prone to behave abusively after exerting the self-control needed to behave ethically.

Whereas we have focused on how Dr. Jekyll can awaken Mr. Hyde, it also is entirely possible for Mr. Hyde to bring Dr. Jekyll to life. For instance, after behaving abusively bosses may want to make up for their bad feelings about themselves by behaving ethically. In any event, the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may not be so strange after all. We should not be surprised by inconsistency in our bosses’ moral behavior, once we consider how taking the high road may cause them to take the low road, and vice versa.  

About the Author

Joel Brockner Ph.D.

Joel Brockner, Ph.D., is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.

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