Follower propensity to commit crimes of obedience: the role of leadership beliefs.

Author:Hinrichs, Kim T.

Organizations and society are concerned about unethical behavior. One type of unethical behavior is crimes of obedience, where followers are influenced by a leader to engage in behavior they would otherwise consider unethical. In this article, the author proposes that people who see themselves as leadership material and hold leaders in high esteem are more likely to view leaders as having more responsibility for ethical decisions and behaviors than followers. Consequently, such persons when placed in a follower position may be more susceptible to commit crimes of obedience through the process of moral disengagement by displacing responsibility for their behavior onto the leader.

Keywords: obedience; leadership; followers; moral responsibility; moral disengagement


Incidents of corporate fraud such as those involving Enron, Arthur Anderson, Tyco, and MCI and the Abu Ghrave prison abuse scandal have once again highlighted the importance of ethical behavior in organizations (Bandura, Caprara, & Zsolnai, 2000; Mintzberg, Simons, & Basu, 2002). Of particular concern is the willingness of persons in follower positions to unquestioningly obey an unethical leader. In several of the more publicized recent scandals, followers engaged in unethical behavior at the direction of a leader, then excused their actions by arguing that they were merely following orders. These followers apparently believed that given their position in their organization's hierarchy, they were not completely responsible for their own ethical behavior.

This article addresses the problem of follower obedience to unethical orders from the perspective of the follower by focusing on follower characteristics that might contribute to some people being more likely than others to obey a leader's unethical directives. In this article, I propose that over the course of their lives, people receive a range of feedback regarding their leadership potential. This feedback affects their perceptions of leadership and their place in the leader-follower relationship. These perceptions combine to influence an individual's beliefs regarding the relative moral responsibility of leaders versus followers. The model presented in this article proposes that susceptibility to the influence of an unethical leader is related to leadership perceptions through beliefs regarding the relative moral responsibility of leaders versus followers.

There are unique ethical problems embedded in the leader--follower relationship (Hollander, 1995). Leaders can order followers to engage in unethical behavior and often obtain compliance because of the power imbalance. Through this process, the unethical behavior of a person in a leadership position can be amplified throughout an organization (Lord & DeZoort, 2001; Meeus & Raaijmakers, 1986). This dynamic, where subordinates succumb to the influence of a leader and the pressures of the leader-follower relationship and behave in ways they would otherwise deem unethical, is termed crimes of obedience. Crimes of obedience does not refer to instances where the leader and follower are partners in crime but rather refers to follower behaviors that absent a leader's influence, the follower would not engage in (Beu & Buckley, 2004).

The importance of situational variables on a person's likelihood to obey unethical orders is often associated with Milgram's studies (Blass, 1991). However, situational factors alone could not explain obedience in Milgram's experiments as, regardless of the situational manipulation, some people refused to obey. Overall, about 65% of the participants in Milgram's obedience studies were obedient to authority, whereas 35% were not (Blass, 1999). Although Milgram emphasized the importance of the situation on obedience, he believed personality variables were also a factor and noted, "I am certain that there is a complex personality basis to obedience and disobedience. But I know we did not find it" (Milgram, 1974, p. 205).

Milgram (1974) believed that the tendency to obey the orders of a superior is not instinctive. He offered three possible explanations for why some people obey and some do not (Browning, 1992): (a) Over the course of time, evolution may have favored those who adapted to the pressures of hierarchical systems, (b) people may have been socialized to obey through systems that reward obedience and punish disobedience, and (c) when people voluntarily enter hierarchical systems they believe to be legitimate, they may develop a sense of obligation to adopt the perspective of those in authority and consequently feel less responsible for their behaviors. Subsequent studies have identified some relationships between obedience and...

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