Control Freak

​​The Impact of Control and Direct Reports on Ethical Leadership

By In Weekly Email 5 Minute Read Time

Control Freak: The Impact of Control and Direct Reports on Ethical Leadership

A couple of months back, a newly promoted leader wrote us here at the Kimono asking if we had any advice on managing his 49 direct reports. For the love of all things holy!, we thought. To clarify, we asked him if he needed to crank out 49 annual performance evaluations. His answer in the affirmative led us to FedEx a care package of scotch, airplane glue, and Oxy.

Here, at the Kimono, we’re a curious lot and it got us thinking—what’s the impact of a large span of control or when you’ve got a ton of direct reports under us? A recent article in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds an unfortunate light on this growing phenomenon. Make no mistake, average span of control (the # we directly manage) doubled over the last 30 years. To consult Captain Obvious for the answer—organizations are much flatter as middle managers and hierarchies have been decimated to save money.

So, these researchers tested the relationship between ethical leadership and span of control. Buckle up and take a deep breath. After surveying 2,764 subordinates and 343 leaders and capturing the span of control of each leader from the HR department of a Fortune 1000 firm, they found that the benefits of ethical leadership are severely and negatively impacted as the number of direct reports increases. Specifically, they found that ethical leaders cannot devote the time to trusting and deep relationships as the number of direct reports increases. As a result, the benefits typically associated with ethical leadership, like improved individual performance and helping behaviors to the organization, went way down. Because these ethical leaders don’t have the time to exchange ethical ideas and moral expectations with their subordinates, direct reports are more likely to engage in harmful, deviant behaviors. The cool thing about this study is that they replicated these same exact findings in a large insurance company. These researchers went over the top to inspire our confidence. Bravo.

The Kimono loves tension and blowing up conventional wisdom. We hit the motherlode as this study is a drama queen in action. Notably, organizations may think they’re getting more efficient and saving gobs of money by removing layers of management and supervision. Perhaps, they believe they can still maintain a strong culture by putting ethical leaders in charge of more and more people. After all, it’s these ethical leaders that bake goodness into an organization by not only setting the moral example, but by interpersonal relationships and the positive reinforcement of values that those exchanges spark. Orgs go down this path at their own risk. The irony is that they’re diminishing, if not flat-out, undermining the impact that these leaders create by burdening them with too many direct reports. For, Godsake, they’re human. 49 direct reports?!?!?

Kimono speaks the truth. Always.

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