Personality Influences Ethics of Leaders

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jul 19, 2012
When asked, most people say they are ethical, according to Cris Wildermuth, SPHR, assistant professor of adult learning and organizational performance at Drake University. Yet whether leaders act ethically or not depends on personality, the situation and other factors.

“Personality impacts the way we look at ethical dilemmas,” Wildermuth said during a webinar titled “Decoding Leadership Ethics,” held July 13, 2012, and sponsored by the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies (CentACS). Personality is a pattern of behaviors displayed by an individual most of the time, she said—or the way someone is recognized by the world.

Wildermuth, a master trainer on the Workplace Big Five Profile, a CentACS product, introduced the topic by describing the five traits that explain most personality differences:

  • Stability. People fall somewhere on a spectrum between nervous and calm, she said. Some people are resilient and have a high tolerance for stress; others are more nervous: “I’m a proud member of the ‘freak out society,’ ” she told participants.
  • Extraversion. Some people crave social contact and stimulation of the senses; others need more peace and quiet, she noted. “Extraverts have more tolerance for the bombardment of people,” she said.
  • Originality. Some seek the efficiency that comes from a stable environment while others like innovation, newness and “change for change’s sake,” she explained. Efficient people are most likely to say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she said, while original people might say “If it ain’t broke, let’s break it and see what happens,” she added.
  • Accommodation. Some people are “challenging” while others are “agreeable,” Wildermuth said, so this personality trait focuses on individuals’ ability to adjust to other people’s needs. “Challengers challenge all the time; it’s harder for them to get to their goals,” she said. On the other end are adapters—people who adapt to other people’s needs.
  • Consolidation. This trait means that some people are more methodical and focused while others are more flexible and spontaneous, she said.

Big Five Personality Traits





















Source: Workplace Big Five Profile,

“Personality is neither good nor bad,” Wildermuth said in a video introduction to the webcast. “Personality is always relative … it’s all about how we relate to each other.”

What Does Personality Have to Do with Ethics?

Wildermuth said that research into the five personality traits revealed that the “typical leader” is most likely to be calm, extraverted, original, challenging and focused.

Yet those most likely to comply with rules and policies have other traits in common. Using the profile above, she noted that rule followers tend to be nervous, introverted, efficient, agreeable and focused. In other words, four out of the five traits common to leaders are the exact opposite of the traits common to those who follow rules.

This is problematic, she suggested, because organizations typically handle ethical issues by:

  • Enforcing compliance with policies.
  • Using “integrity tests” to try to weed out people who don’t have integrity.
  • Intervening when an ethics problem is brought to their attention.

Yet Wildermuth said there is only one personality trait that impacts integrity tests, and that is consolidation: the extent to which someone is flexible or focused. Thus, if organizations rely on integrity test results when making selection and promotion decisions, they will weed out those with important leadership traits as well as those with other personality traits needed for a well-balanced workplace.

Exploring Why Ethical Problems Occur

Wildermuth said there are three root causes of ethical problems:

Moral intuition. When individuals are faced with a dilemma they often react immediately, relying on a gut reaction. “We reach a decision, and then justify it morally,” she said. “We think the justification is our moral reasoning but actually, the moral reasoning occurs first.”

Self-deception. Human beings are really good at deceiving themselves into believing that ethical situations are not ethical situations, she explained. Thus, people believe they are ethical because when they act unethically they have already eliminated ethics from a situation. Moreover, humans “gradually become immune to lapses in ethics,” Wildermuth said, by using euphemisms such as “this is just business” and “collateral damage” to justify their actions. “People don’t decide suddenly to act totally unethically,” she noted; it happens over time.

“In group” bias. Humans have a tendency to like those who look and act like themselves. This means they are more likely to look the other way when someone they like does something wrong. This is a very powerful psychological tendency, she said.

Another Factor Influencing Moral Decisions

Wildermuth explained that individuals tend to view ethical decisions in a different way the further such decisions are removed from their own circles of influence. For example, if an ethical decision has a direct impact on an individual or an individual’s family or friends, they are more likely to bend rules or view the situation in a different way than if the same situation affects groups that are farther removed from their circle, such as their community or country.

Moreover, when a situation involves an individual’s family or friends, they are more likely to focus on their relationships and use empathy and care in making a decision. In contrast, those situations involving one’s country or community are more likely to be made using principles such as justice and fairness.

Yet in order to solve a moral dilemma individuals must exercise a combination of justice and care, she explained. This is good news for HR professionals who worry about becoming too close to employees because they fear they will lack objectivity in dealing with employee issues.

Evaluating Ethical Dilemmas

When dealing with ethical situations, leaders should slow down and ask themselves a series of questions, Wildermuth suggested, such as:

  • Did I reach the decision freely?
  • Did I consider alternative decisions?
  • Does the decision feel authentic and match my personal code of ethics?
  • Would I acknowledge this decision publicly?
  • Would I teach others to make the same decision?
  • If the circumstances were different, would I still make the same decision?

In addition, Wildermuth encouraged participants to ask themselves what happens if a top performer commits an ethical violation in their workplace. “If the answer is ‘nothing,’ forget about introducing ethics in your organization,” she said.

“There is no reason to have value statements on the wall if the company’s leaders won’t live [the values],” she added.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Quick Links:

Ethics and Sustainability Home Page

Introduction to Ethics and Sustainability

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect