Featured Collaborator of July/August: David Mayer

Interview with David Mayer, associate professor in the Management and Organizations Area at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan


What are your main areas of research? 

I am an organizational scholar who focuses primarily on one fundamental question: When and why do individuals in organizations engage in unethical and prosocial behavior? More specifically, I am interested how the social environment in organizations (e.g., leadership, peers, organizational climate, organizational practices) impacts unethical and prosocial behavior.

I am also fascinated with the question of whether employees and leaders think that business and work are part of the moral domain of social life and I have worked on several papers that demonstrate that at times “business” and “ethics” are inseparable and at times they are, as the truism suggests, an oxymoron.

In contrast to the bulk of work taking a social science lens on ethics, I typically take a positive lens by not focusing solely on identifying pitfalls and biases that lead to unethical behavior, but by understanding how the context at work can improve prosocial behavior, how employees and leaders in organizations can influence others to do good, and when leaders and employees are most likely to act in ways that suggest they consider work to be a moral domain.

See our research page on the importance of ethical leadership in organizations.


Why is ethical leadership such a difficult obstacle to overcome?

This is a great question. I think there are a number of factors that explain why we do not see more examples of ethical leadership.

First, leaders do not always view business and work as being a moral domain of life. Many leaders think of family or religion as the domains where it is appropriate to talk about values, but business is not. The idea of moral muteness, the notion that managers tend to strip moral language from the work environment, is one example.

Second, leaders are busy. There are a lot of demands on organizational leaders and their own livelihood often depends on their ability to get things done in a short amount of time. This focus on the task makes leaders less likely to focus on ethics. They are not trying to be unethical but are what ES collaborator Linda Treviño, and her colleagues, describe as “ethically neutral”—they simply do not talk about ethics or develop systems to encourage ethical conduct.

Third, people have a tendency to believe that ethics resides in individuals as opposed to the organizational environment. If this is true then ethics in organizations is simply a selection issue (i.e., hire ethical people). This is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for developing an ethical environment. Leaders often fail to realize how large a role the culture they create plays in encouraging ethical conduct. This being said, there are many leaders at different levels in organizations who serve as ethical leaders—we just want to increase that number so it becomes the norm.


Are certain companies paragons of ethical leadership?

Sometimes it is tough to say certain companies are completely ethical, because, like people, organizations are not perfect. However, I am encouraged by a number of movements that are encouraging ethical and socially responsible leadership.

For example, Conscious Capitalism, B-Corps, The B Team, and The Purpose Economy, are all movements focused on envisioning a version of capitalism that emphasizes ethical leadership. At the same time, millennials, who are increasingly making up the bulk of the workforce, are demanding to work for organizations that provide meaning and that make the world better.

At the Center for Positive Organizations at Michigan Ross, we see a huge demand from organizations of all sizes and business students to understand the practices that create positive, ethical organizations. Although I did not name specific companies, it feels like a new version of business—that emphasizes ethics and meaning—is on the precipice.


How does your work on leadership help companies that want to improve themselves as ethical systems?

I take a systems approach to understand ethics in organizations. Leaders at all levels and the cultures they create are the biggest factors influencing ethical conduct in organizations. It is important for top management to be ethical leaders, but it is also critical for such leadership to trickle down through the organization.

It is also not enough to have a values statement. The values in the organization must be enacted through various practices—recruitment, selection, training, performance management, compensation, etc.

An ethical system suggests that the practices are in alignment and are there to encourage appropriate conduct.


If you could only highlight one paper or research finding (or piece of work that you’ve been involved with) that relates to Ethical Systems which one would it be and why?

This is tough as there are so many interesting and important findings in our field.

One of the most intriguing findings, that has been replicated over a dozen times, is that when individuals are in a business “frame” they are more self-interested and less honest than when in a moral “frame.” Ann Tenbrunsel (an ethical systems contributor) and others have found this effect in their research. Even calling a game the Stock Market Game versus calling it a Community Game leads to adopting different frames and vastly different behavior—with more unethical behavior when the same game is labeled as a Stock Market Game. Learn more about framing in our review of “Sidetracked” by Francesca Gino.

There is something about business that is imbued with economic rationality that can lead to self-interested and dishonest decision making. It is important for us to change the associations many of us have about business. After all, it is easy to make the argument that business may be the greatest hope for improving society. This finding suggests we need to make a shift from thinking about business in terms of economic rationality to business as a means to economic and social prosperity.


Tell us about one of your current or future projects.

I am very excited about one recent stream of research that integrates two of my interests: moralizing business and ethical influence. Moralizing business involved injecting morality into the business context and ethical influence focuses on how to persuade people to “do good” at work. In several studies, my colleagues and I find that despite conventional wisdom, when trying to convince management to engage in a socially responsible practice (e.g., sustainability, gender equality, employee rights) it is more effective to use a moral argument than a business case argument—provided the issue is in line with the organization’s values or mission.

For example, assuming sustainability is somewhat important to an organization, if an employee emphasizes the moral reason (i.e., this is the morally right thing to do) for adopting a more sustainable practice, management is more likely to dedicate time, money, and resources to address that issue than if the employee uses a business case argument (i.e., this will be profitable for the company).

In related research my coauthors and I find that when organizations make a moral case for a diverse workforce as opposed to a business case that managers are more likely to make hiring decisions that increase diversity. I like this stream of research because it suggests that bringing morality into the workplace can be an effective means to create social change from within organizations.


How did you first get interested in your field?

I often get asked this question. Some people wonder if I was a bully as a kid who suddenly found the light. Others assume I come from a very religious background. The reality is that most of my life has been consumed with understanding how to have a meaningful existence. In my mind a meaningful life is a life in which we do good—lead an ethical life. So, my interest really began from “me-search”—understanding why I am not as good a person as I aspire to be. As I am on my own personal path, I realized how important it is for me to not only live a good, ethical life myself but to help others do the same. This passion, or obsession, probably came implicitly from coming from a family of psychologists, teachers/professors, social workers, and small-business owners.


If you could only give one piece of advice to companies, what would it be?

Think long-term. One major cause of unethical conduct is a short-term, bottom-line approach that often can lead to sacrificing ethics for short-term gain. Although this can lead to positive short-term outcomes, in the long run it can have a devastating effect on ethical conduct and ultimately company reputation and viability.

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