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Mental Exhaustion May Lead Ethical Managers to Lash Out

Mental Exhaustion May Lead Ethical Managers to Lash Out

New research suggest taking the higher ethical ground may be associated with a managerial style that castigates employees.

Russell Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at Michigan State University, believes ethical conduct leads to mental exhaustion and the “moral licensing” to lash out at employees.

The study appears online in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Moral licensing is a phenomenon in which people, after doing something good, feel they have earned the right to act in a negative manner, Johnson said.

“Ironically, when leaders felt mentally fatigued and morally licensed after displays of ethical behavior, they were more likely to be abusive toward their subordinates on the next day.”

Johnson and Michigan State University students Szu-Han Lin and Jingjing Ma surveyed 172 supervisors over a several-day period in various industries including retail, education, manufacturing, and health care. The goal: examine the consequences of ethical behavior for the leaders who exhibited it.

Johnson said it’s not easy to be ethical, as it turns out. “Being ethical means leaders often have to suppress their own self-interest (they must do ‘what’s right’ as opposed to ‘what’s profitable’), and they have to monitor not only the performance outcomes of subordinates but also the means (to ensure that ethical/appropriate practices were followed).”

Ethical behavior led to mental fatigue and moral licensing, and this led to leaders being more abusive to their workers. The abuse included ridiculing, insulting, and expressing anger toward employees, giving them the silent treatment and reminding them of past mistakes or failures.

Researchers do have recommendations to help managers mitigate the stress and improve interpersonal relations with their employees.

To combat mental fatigue, Johnson said managers should build in time for breaks during the workday; get sufficient sleep; eat healthy and exercise; and unplug from work outside of the office (which includes shutting off the smartphone at night).

Dealing with moral licensing is trickier, as there is not much research on the subject. However, Johnson suggested companies could consider formally requiring ethical behavior.

“If such behavior is required, then it’s more difficult for people to feel they’ve earned credit for performing something that is mandatory,” he said. “A sense of moral license is more likely when people feel they voluntarily or freely exhibited the behavior.”

Ethical behavior could also be formally rewarded with social praise or money. But the praise or bonus should come relatively soon after the ethical behavior in order to counteract the moral licensing, Johnson said.

Source: Michigan State University
 
Man yelling in anger photo by shutterstock.

Mental Exhaustion May Lead Ethical Managers to Lash Out

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2016). Mental Exhaustion May Lead Ethical Managers to Lash Out. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2016/02/15/mental-exhaustion-may-lead-ethical-managers-to-lash-out/99145.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Feb 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Feb 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.