Don’t Try to Be the “Fun Boss” — and Other Lessons in Ethical Leadership

fun boss*This article was written by Kimberly Nei and Darin Nei, and was originally published by Harvard Business Review on September 10, 2018.

Just becoming a leader is enough to exacerbate some people’s unethical tendencies. But power does not corrupt everyone. Our research suggests that key personality characteristics predict unethical leadership behavior.

We collected personality data and supervisor ratings of ethical behavior (e.g., integrity, accountability) on 3,500 leaders across 30 organizations we had worked with. The organizations included in our study were largely multinational, represented several industries, and varied in size from medium to large. We combined data across these 30 independent studies to examine the relationship between personality and ethical leadership across a range of different settings and situations. We found that characteristics related to certain traits have stronger relationships with unethical behavior.

So, what should today’s leaders do to build trust with their teams and the public? Here are a few tips, based on our findings:

Be humble; not charismatic. It is natural that we are attracted to people whom we perceive to be inspiring, fun, and engaging. It makes sense that you need a little charisma or pizzazz to stand out from others and get noticed. Charisma can also be useful for engaging and inspiring others towards the organizational mission. However, too much of this may be a bad thing in the eyes of your team members. Unchecked charisma will lead to a reputation of self-absorption and self-promotion. When team members get the sense that you are focused on your own concerns and ideas, they feel unsupported. The team may start to worry that you will no longer do what is best for the team or organization, and that you will instead do what is best for your own agenda.

Be steady and dependable; it will get you further. While you may have been noticed and promoted based on your charisma, being reliable, rule-following, and responsible is more important for your team. As a leader, you have a tremendous amount of autonomy and decision-making power. If we are to entrust our leaders with such power, we need to be confident in their ability to remain true to their word and to do what’s right for the organization. Showing your team that you exercise caution, take calculated risks, and will adhere to organizational principles will go a long way toward gaining their trust.

Remember that modesty is the best policy. At times, we may all enjoy working in an environment that is less formal, or working for a boss who knows how to keep things light-hearted. However, there is still a degree of responsibility and professionalism that people come to expect from those in charge. Trying to be liked and known as “the fun boss” can tarnish your reputation in the long run. It’s OK to stay out of the limelight and keep some space between you and your team. It sends signals that you are there for their professional benefit and that they can rely on you when needed.

Balance analysis with action. Although people appreciate a degree of logic and rationality in the decision-making process, be careful to not get so focused on data and analysis that you forget the larger context or the impact of your decisions. Spending too much time analyzing data can hold you back from making important decisions, especially in high-pressure situations that call for quick action. The data may indicate the best course of action for the bottom line, but this may not be the best decision for the broader team or relevant stakeholders. Leadership must be able to make a decision and take corrective action quickly, even if it initially hurts the bottom line.

Be vigilant; vulnerability increases over time. Learning and adjusting to a new role, especially a high-visibility leadership role, can take some time. It’s during the first few months in a new role that we usually spend more time observing what’s going on around us. We also tend to be more mindful of our interactions with others and may spend more time managing the impressions we make on others. Over time, we become more comfortable in our surroundings and we stop paying attention to our reputations. It’s usually after the six-month mark where we see an increased risk of our dark-side tendencies impeding our success or derailing our careers. Keep your guard up, stay vigilant, and continually seek feedback.

The personality characteristics that will get you chosen as a leader are not always the same as the ones that will make you effective in that role. Spending too much time trying to get noticed or having a “win at all costs” mentality to get ahead can put you (and your team) at a higher risk of engaging in unethical behavior. Having awareness of your surroundings and an understanding of the ways you influence your team will help to keep yourself (and your team) on track.

*Kimberly Nei is a manager of client research at Hogan Assessments where she manages the design and implementation of legally defensible assessment-based selection and development solutions.

*Darin Nei is a senior consultant with Hogan Assessments’ Global Alliances team where he works closely with international consulting partners to deliver science-based solutions and ensure assessment quality across a variety of cultures and languages.