Them's fightin' words: The effects of violent rhetoric on ethical decision making in business

Abstract

Business managers regularly employ metaphorical violent rhetoric as a means of motivating their employees to action. While it might be effective to this end, research on violent media suggests that violent rhetoric might have other, less desirable consequences. This study examines how the use of metaphorical violent rhetoric by business managers impacts the ethical decision making of employees. We develop and test a model that explains how the use of violent rhetoric impacts employees’ willingness to break ethical standards, depending on the source of the rhetoric. The results of two experiments suggest that the use of violent rhetoric by a CEO at a competing company increases employees’ willingness to engage in ethical violations while the use of violent rhetoric by employees’ own CEO decreases their willingness to engage in unethical behavior. Furthermore, we find that participants who made less ethical decisions motivated by violent rhetoric used by a competitor’s CEO did not view their decisions as less ethical than the other participants in the experiments. The results of these studies highlight potentially harmful unintended consequences of the use of violent rhetoric, providing knowledge that should be useful to managers and academics who want to increase employee motivation without increasing a willingness to engage in unethical behavior.

Publication
Journal of Business Ethics