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Trickle-down Effects of Unethical Leadership: The Role of Meaning-making

Business Ethics

ISBN: 978-1-78973-684-7, eISBN: 978-1-78973-683-0

Publication date: 7 June 2019


To date, the vast majority of existing research on unethical leadership has focused on top leaders’ actions and behaviors as the primary catalyst for the permeation of unethical behaviors in organizations. In this chapter, we shift the focus to middle and junior managers and argue that they too have an active role in contributing to the permeation of top-level unethical leadership. More specifically, we adopt a meaning-making lens to investigate how junior and middle-level managers perceive and interpret top-level unethical leadership and how such meaning-making affects their (un)ethical legitimacy. Understanding the role played by lower-level managers becomes vitally important to develop a more holistic picture of the permeation of unethical leadership. Findings from 30 in-depth interviews with top, middle, and junior managers reveal variables such as survival, group membership, and strain as buttressing meaning-making by lower-level managers. Findings also revealed two contrasting aspects, that is, “interactions” within organizational members as well as “silence” by top-level managers playing into individuals’ information processing and attribution capacities during ethical dilemmas. Real cases experienced by participants pertaining to the flow of unethical leadership illustrate how the central bearings play out in managerial practice.



Misha, P. and van Dijke, M. (2019), "Trickle-down Effects of Unethical Leadership: The Role of Meaning-making", Business Ethics (Business and Society 360, Vol. 3), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 87-122.



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