What Role Do Middle Managers Play In Unethical Behavior?

When we usually think of unethical behavior, it’s often the fat cats at the top we believe are creaming off unfair shares of the pie, or alternatively those on the front line with their hands in the till.  Seldom do we regard the foot soldiers in middle managers as potential culprits.

A recent study from Penn State suggests that this assumption might need reassessing.  The study found that middle managers used a range of tactics to deceive their senior managers.

Stretched to breaking point

At the heart of the issue is the stretch goals that are often set by senior managers.  They believe that middle managers rarely have any say in how these are constructed, but are nonetheless expected to meet them, no matter how challenging that is.

“What we found in this particular case — but I think it happens a lot — is that there were obstacles in the way of achieving these goals set by top management,” the authors say. “For a variety of reasons, the goals were unrealistic and unachievable. 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.”

When faced with such substantial obstacles, the middle managers often attempted to deceive senior management, thus creating the impression that the goals were being met.

“It became clear to middle managers that there was no way their people could meet these goals,” the authors say. “They 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.”

These strategies might be pulling in sales from another unit, portraying orders as fully booked sales whilst ensuring that the sales data input into the IT system as normal.

Forcing subordinates to join in

The middle managers also use a range of different tactics to encourage/force their subordinates to participate in this behavior, whether it’s rewarding unethical behavior or even shaming them for not engaging.

What didn’t tend to happen was managers standing up and saying “no, these goals simply aren’t realistic”.  Instead, managers tended to stay quiet and do their best to meet the goals set of them.

The authors believe that their study, whilst limited to a single firm, could help to explain various other scandals where misconduct occurred on an institutional level.  They believe their work underlines the vital importance of senior leaders investigating whether the goals they set are really viable.

“Everybody has goals and goals are motivating, but there are nuances,” the authors conclude. “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. Most front-line employees wanted to do that. But the managers intervened, coercing them to engage in the unethical behaviors.”