Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 121, Issue 1, pp 1–14 | Cite as

Being “in Control” May Make You Lose Control: The Role of Self-Regulation in Unethical Leadership Behavior

  • Anne Joosten
  • Marius van Dijke
  • Alain Van Hiel
  • David De Cremer


In the present article, we argue that the constant pressure that leaders face may limit the willpower required to behave according to ethical norms and standards and may therefore lead to unethical behavior. Drawing upon the ego depletion and moral self-regulation literatures, we examined whether self-regulatory depletion that is contingent upon the moral identity of leaders may promote unethical leadership behavior. A laboratory experiment and a multisource field study revealed that regulatory resource depletion promotes unethical leader behaviors among leaders who are low in moral identity. No such effect was found among leaders with a high moral identity. This study extends our knowledge on why organizational leaders do not always conform to organizational goals. Specifically, we argue that the hectic and fragmented workdays of leaders may increase the likelihood that they violate ethical norms. This highlights the necessity to carefully schedule tasks that may have ethical implications. Similarly, organizations should be aware that overloading their managers with work may increase the likelihood of their leaders transgressing ethical norms.


Unethical leadership Ego depletion Moral identity 



This research was supported by grant G063610N from the Fund for Scientific Research-Flanders (FWO-Vlaanderen).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne Joosten
    • 1
  • Marius van Dijke
    • 2
  • Alain Van Hiel
    • 1
  • David De Cremer
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Developmental, Personality and Social PsychologyGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  2. 2.Rotterdam School of ManagementErasmus UniversityRotterdamThe Netherlands
  3. 3.CEIBSShanghaiChina

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