We generally believe that it is good to have close relationships with the people we work for and those we manage.
Organizations and leaders do many things to encourage this: retreats, one-on-one meetings, lunches, coaching – to name a few. However, good relationships at work can also lead to unethical behavior.
In one Recent study With our colleagues Ramzi Said and Onne Janssen, we found that people who report closer relationships with their superiors are more likely to behave badly on their behalf.
This included things like misrepresenting the truth or withholding negative information about them to make their manager look good even when there was no obvious or immediate benefit to doing so.
We did two studies. One was an experiment with 150+ workers from the United States and the other was a survey of 200+ European workers.
In both studies, we found that employees who believed that unethical behavior helped their manager were more likely to do so when they had a strong relationship with them than when the relationship was weak.
We also found out why this happened. The workers acted unethically to reciprocate or repay their boss for their boss’s commitment to them.
This expectation was in no way made explicit by her boss. Instead, workers merely acted according to the universal norm of unspoken reciprocity: If you do something good for me, I’ll do something good for you in return.
Similarly, we’ve found that people who don’t have a good relationship with their boss do the opposite.
They are more likely to act unethically to support themselves, possibly at the expense of their boss.
The motivation was the same. Instead of reciprocating their good relationship with their boss, people here felt the need to give their bosses their own back in order to have a bad relationship with them.
They would be more willing to misrepresent the truth to make themselves look good or withhold true but negative information about themselves from others in the organization.
Previous research has shown that this type of behavior is not limited to people’s relationship with their immediate manager, but extends to the entire organization.
OtherResearcher have found that employees who identify strongly with their organization are more likely to misrepresent the truth and withhold potentially harmful information about it, even if it means acting against a customer’s best interests.
Again, this is all out of the feeling of repaying a company that is very close to your heart.
This work also suggests that employees who identify strongly with the organization they work for may become blind to wrongdoing or unethical behavior because of their positive view of their workplace.
To have advantages
Research shows that companies and individuals have tremendous benefits when employees have good relationships with their managers, including a positive impact on their physical condition and mental wellbeing.
People who have close relationships with their supervisors also tend to perform better at work, spread goodwill throughout the rest of the company, and provide greater support to their colleagues – not to mention higher job satisfaction and engagement for them company.
So bosses need to take action if they want to both maintain strong bonds with the people who work for them and ensure they are ethical and uphold strong corporate values.
You must make it clear that lying, cheating, or any other measure to protect your manager will not be allowed or appreciated.
The bosses need to make it clear that they and no one else in the company see this as positive behavior that shows loyalty.
And when bosses observe this type of behavior (even if it is a minor behavior), they need to make the employee aware of it immediately, and possibly even accompany it with a meaningful sanction, to demonstrate the importance of not doing so act.
Employees should also recognize their potential to do the wrong thing in a misguided act of loyalty to their boss – and avoid doing so.
Strong relationships in the workplace are always beneficial, especially in the current climate of fear sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even so, these relationships should be the basis for more ethical, not unethical, behavior.