Here’s Why Middle Managers Drive Unethical Behavior

The fish rots from the head, or so says common wisdom. In management hierarchies, that can be true, but when it comes to enacting bad policies, it's usually the middle managers who do direct damage. New research from Penn State University suggests that unethical behavior comes from a common source, no matter where you stand on the food chain: superiors' unreasonable expectations.

This doesn't necessarily apply to bad behavior like insider trading or workplace harassment. Rather, the researchers looked at things like fudging reports to meet sales goals. "What goal-setting theory says is that if you're not committed to the goal because you think it's unachievable, you'll just throw your hands up and give up," co-author Linda Treviño, a professor of organizational behavior and ethics, said in a press release. "Most front-line employees wanted to do that. But the managers intervened, coercing them to engage in the unethical behaviors."

Social pressure plays more of a role in enforcing unethical behavior than direct retaliation too. Those middle managers were more likely to reward subordinate workarounds and isolate or badger those workers who wouldn't participate. Most strikingly, managers by and large would not stand up to their own superiors, who presented them with unachievable goals.

"For a variety of reasons, the goals were unrealistic and unachievable," Treviño said. "The workers didn't have enough training. They didn't feel competent. They didn't know the products well enough. There weren't enough customers and there wasn't even enough time to get all the work done." She added that the middle managers "got really creative because their bonuses are tied to what their people do, or because they didn't want to lose their jobs. Middle managers exploited vulnerabilities they identified in the organization to come up with ways to make it look like their workers were achieving goals when they weren't."

If you're worried about your supervisor asking too much of you and your team, communicate that simply and clearly, with your only goal to set expectations and show hard data about what can and can't work. It's far healthier for the entire company to operate with accurate facts on the ground than wild projections with no basis in output. If that's not an option, that's also information about whether you need to think about changing jobs.