Who do you most admire? A former teacher, a world leader, a neighbor, your boss? As adults, we tend to give little thought to the idea of having a “role model,” as we regard this to be a quality that children seek from the adults in their lives. However, if you stop and consider who most influences you now, and why, you’ll no doubt agree that the people you admire now are giving you your most important life lessons.
Role models who uphold high ethical or moral values are typically not the people whose stories make it to the press or social media. We’ve all been exposed to public figures who might qualify as anti-role models. Their antics may include being aggressive toward paparazzi or admitting to abusing illegal drugs. Being bad is just plain sexier than being good. Unfortunately, because these are the public figures who get the most attention, it’s easy to lose your own moral compass and come to believe that you too will get more of what you want in life if you act out every once in a while.
Studies of learning in children show that through a process known as vicarious reinforcement, we start to model the behavior of individuals whose actions seem to be getting rewarded. In vicarious reinforcement, your tendency to commit a behavior that someone else gets praise or attention for increases almost as much as if you were actually getting the rewards yourself. Unless the public figure who’s acted out is thoroughly and utterly disgraced and then completely disappears from public view, vicarious learning will occur in those exposed to that public figure’s actions. Most of the time, though, these people do anything but disappear. After the usual mea culpa, the media forgive them and we, the public, come away with the lesson that anyone can achieve redemption and make a profit at the same time.
In your personal life, you may also see plenty of anti-role models. Consider work settings. Perhaps one of your bosses has a reputation for sliding around the edges of rules or best practices. You’ve been at meetings where the boss brags about how he sold faulty merchandise to a client or how she misled a customer into agreeing to a shady deal. You may come away from these meetings thinking that the way to get ahead is to engage in similar acts of questionable ethics. Taking a page from your supervisor’s playbook may provide you with a clear path to the top. It feels wrong at first, but if it’s OK for your boss, then it must be right.
What about the opposite situation? You’re at a staff meeting where one of your fellow employees admits to one of those questionable dealings. Instead of offering congratulations, your supervisor expresses concern and disappointment. Through the process of vicarious reinforcement, you acquire the expectation that if you were to engage in this behavior yourself, bad things would happen to you just as they did to your coworker. Your supervisor, then, has acted as a role model, showing that certain behaviors are acceptable and others are not. If you want to get to the top, you’ll have to learn to climb the ethical ladder.
Managers learn to be ethical or not from someplace, but the question is where and how? In a study published in June 2013, Pennsylvania State University researchers Michael Brown and Linda Treviño investigated the steps that lead managers to be perceived by their supervisees as decent human beings who have something to teach them—in other words, being an ethical leader. Earlier work led them to believe that to be perceived as an ethical leader, the individual must be seen as a moral person who is honest, trustworthy, caring about people, open to input, respectful, and able to make principled decisions. To be moral managers, they must use leadership tools that include providing rewards, disciplining others when necessary, communicating clearly, and letting their employees know that they themselves must maintain ethical standards.
When employees have ethical leaders, they like them better. Just as importantly, they will behave in more positive ways within the organization. Clearly, it’s to everyone’s advantage to have supervisors who are positive role models.
Brown and Treviño reasoned that ethical leaders probably weren’t born that way nor did they dream it up themselves. Most of us don’t come equipped with a clear set of ethical standards on our own. We receive lessons from others, to a certain extent, but it’s more likely that we acquire our moral sense through vicarious processes. These researchers believed that one way people become ethical leaders is by having ethical role models when they are young. The learning they receive as children becomes the foundation for being an ethical leader as an adult.
Mentors are a second source of learning to be ethical leaders. When they take us under their wing, those who guide us in the workplace, or even those who work side-by-side as co-workers with us show us, again through vicarious learning, that we ourselves need to be honest and fair in our dealings with others.
The third way to learn how to be an ethical leader, Brown and Treviño argued, is by observing “top” managers. Those who have made it to the ranks of executives have legitimacy afforded to them by virtue of their status. Furthermore, when those at the apex of the hierarchy are ethical, they communicate these expectations to their underlings who, in turn, pass down the lesson that you’ll be rewarded for being honest, direct, and fair.
To find out which combination of childhood role models, mentors, and top managers produces the greatest impact, Brown and Treviño surveyed 217 managers and 659 who reported directly to them in a large nationwide insurance company. They asked the managers to rate the quality of their ethical role modeling in childhood, the degree to which they felt they had been ethically mentored, and how ethical they perceived their own top bosses to be. Their supervisees, in turn, rated the ethical leadership shown by their managers in their own day-to-day dealings.
Nearly all of the managers surveyed reported that they had ethical role models as children. However, having a positive childhood role model had no impact at all on how ethically their supervisees perceived the managers. Instead, the employee ratings of the ethical leadership style of their managers rested most heavily on whether the managers reported that, as adults, they had been ethically mentored. In fact, the older the managers were, the stronger the effect of having ethical mentoring on their leadership style.
It makes sense that the older you are and the longer you’re in the job, the less effect your childhood role models will have on you and the more powerful will be the role models you have in your work. Ethical adults may shape your character as a young person, but the more you’re out in the world, the more likely it is that your current role models will be the ones to shape your attitudes.
The Brown and Treviño study suggests that having adult role models, then, directly impacts not only how you perceive yourself but, just as importantly, how others perceive you. If those around you have questionable ethics, and seem to be getting away with it, you may eventually unlearn even the most morally upright values you acquired as a child.
This was a study based on the workplace, but it may not be too much of a stretch to apply the findings to other areas of life. Our childhood ideals are constantly being tested when “successful” (in whatever way you define it) relatives and neighbors brag about how they’ve put the screws to business associates, abused a romantic partner, or took advantage of one of their friends or close relatives. Maybe they lied about an insurance claim after an accident and now are able to take an expensive vacation on the proceeds and gleefully relay this story over the holiday dinner table. You can’t help but think, even if just so slightly, that maybe they’re onto something.
You also learn from the famous CEOs whose unethical business dealings get them in the headlines—the inside traders, the bank fraud perpetrators, and others who violate the public trust. On the other hand, you also learn from ethical public figures who speak out against fraud, theft, and abuse of power. When you see a business mogul donate millions to charity (and not just as a tax write-off) you start to think that maybe this is behavior that you should consider emulating.
Just because we’ve become adults doesn’t mean that we’re impervious to ethical influences, both good and bad. We may not even be able to identify precisely the ways in which we’ve been affected. The process of vicarious learning is such that it occurs outside of direct conscious awareness. No one may be telling you to act ethically, but when you see ethical behavior rewarded, your mind draws its own conclusions and ultimately may direct you to follow suit.
One of the inspiring messages from the Brown and Treviño study is that people actually prefer to have ethical leaders. When you play fair, communicate directly, and in general demonstrate that you hold high standards, other people actually do look up to you. If for no other reason than to be liked and respected, taking the moral high ground may be the one that ultimately benefits you as well as those who look up to you as their inspiration.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Brown, M. E., & Treviño, L. K. (2013). Do role models matter? An investigation of role modeling as an antecedent of perceived ethical leadership. Journal Of Business Ethics, doi:10.1007/s10551-013-1769-0