Two wrongs don’t make a right, or do they? Context-dependency of third parties' ethical leadership perception

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Compass points ethics

Past event — 3 February 2021

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Dr. Jennifer Korman

Psychologist in the Field of Neuro-Rehabilitation


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With this paper, we challenge all too simplistic, virtuous accounts of ethical leadership. We argue that preceding follower behavior critically qualifies how ethical subsequent leader behavior is perceived. Specifically, we posit that disrespectful (vs. respectful) leader behavior may only result in lower (vs. higher) perceptions of ethical leadership when these leader behaviors are in response to respectful follower behavior. When they are in response to disrespectful follower behavior, they may result in higher perceptions of ethical leadership. Integrating scope of justice theory, we argue that this effect occurs because observers exclude disrespectfully-acting followers from their scope of justice. That is, they believe that these followers do not deserve respectful treatment anymore (high exclusion beliefs). As a result, observers experience less (vs. more) anger about disrespectful (vs. respectful) leader behavior than they would experience in a respectful follower condition. Based on theories on moral emotions, we argue that the observers will thus perceive the leadership as being more (vs. less) ethical. To test our hypotheses, we conducted a behavioral experiment, three experimental vignette studies, and a critical incident study varying our operationalizations of leader and follower behavior. We find consistent support for the interaction rationale (exclusion beliefs x leader disrespect on anger), as well as the moderated serial mediation. Resultant challenges for research on ethical leadership but also for how leaders should behave in practice are discussed.


Jennifer Korman is doing her PhD under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Niels Van Quaquebeke and Prof. Christian Tröster, PhD. In her research, she investigates how different work conditions affect the mental health of leaders (in particular, burnout) and how leaders‘ mental health and behavior are evaluated by third-parties. From October 2015 until August 2018, Jennifer‘s PhD was funded by a PhD scholarship of the German Academic National Foundation. Since September 2018, she is working part-time in the health sector as a neuropsychologist. Jennifer holds a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Hamburg (2014). Linking Work and Organizational Psychology with Clinical Psychology in her master thesis, she investigated which specific mental strains leaders of different hierarchical levels are confronted with. Jennifer completed her Bachelor program in Psychology at the University of Trier (2011). Broadening her practical knowledge in Clinical Psychology, Jennifer completed a primary training course in rational-emotive and cognitive-behavioral theory and techniques at the German subsidiary of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York in 2014. 
In November 2011 Jennifer joined the KLU as a student assistant and worked there as a student/graduate assistant until September 2015. Since 2010, Jennifer is an active member of the interdisciplinary RespectResearchGroup in Hamburg. Within the RespectResearchGroup, she pursued an internship, her master thesis and currently her PhD. In 2015 she organized the colloquium “Respect and Leadership” which took place at the KLU in October 2015.


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Bärbel Wegener

Assistant to Resident Faculty