Middle managers will generally tend to emulate top-level management misbehaviour, according to research by Gijs van Houwelingen.
The learning development manager of Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, said it is often the case that unethical leadership will trickle down and breed unethical behaviour among those lower down the management chain – regardless of their own ethical make-up.
But this is not inevitable, Mr van Houwelingen said. He added: “The alternative scenario sees middle managers reacting against what they perceive to be poor or unfair senior managerial practice. While they may not openly contest the behaviour they see at the top, they may intentionally seek a fairer approach when dealing with people hierarchically beneath them.”
Distance creates a form of insulation against the influence of higher-level misbehaviour, according to Mr van Houwelingen.
He said that while people are less likely to feel inclined to emulate bosses who are based in another building or country, company bosses should not be remote from the middle-manager’s needs.
“A little distance allows middle managers to ‘be their own man or woman’, but too much and they may be out of the loop.”
He added: “Managers at all levels in any organisation need to strike a balance between a certain sense of closeness to ensure efficiency, and some sense of distance to ensure that negative top-level behaviour does not spread unhindered through all layers of the organisation.”
Self-image is a considerable factor in how middle managers respond to leader unfairness, according to Mr Houwelingen, who adds that – to varying extents – people tend to base their self-image on those they most identify with in their organisations.
“For example, lower-level managers may be more or less inclined to define themselves in terms of their relationship to their higher-level managers. A middle manager who identifies strongly with their manager may for instance describe themselves as ‘part of my manager’s team’.
He added: “Above all, senior managers need to strike a balance between leading by example and creating the right conditions for their ‘followers’ to also enjoy a degree of autonomy and a healthy distance from goings-on at the top, especially when some of those goings-on are viewed in a dim light.”
Darren Cooke, chartered financial planner at Derbyshire-based Red Circle Financial Planning, said: “Having worked in a large corporate firm for many years, I have seen bad behaviour being copied by middle managers.
“Middle managers think that if their superiors are doing it, it must be the right thing to do, and sadly emulate their superiors without questioning their wisdom.
“For financial advisers, top-level misbehaviour could mean not taking due care in dealing with clients, by offering solutions which are good for the company in terms of profit and fees, instead of solutions that are right for the client.”