Unethical Leadership: Selective Respect


By Linda Fisher Thornton

We’ve seen selective respect too often. Beyond harming the people who are disrespected, it also destroys trust, and leads to chaotic environments and fear-based cultures. Even though we’ve all seen selective respect in action, we may not have had the vocabulary to describe why it’s wrong (beyond calling it mean or inappropriate). This week I’m digging in to those details. 

I define “selective respect” as doling out respect only under certain circumstances. It is not an ethical leadership behavior since it applies the ethical value of respect conditionally and not universally. 

Examples of Selective Respect in Action:

  • Teachers picking on certain students while encouraging others.
  • “Cool” kids teasing less popular kids while being chummy with their friends.
  • Employees repeating ethnic jokes or otherwise demeaning certain groups of people.
  • Public leaders treating people in their groups (political, racial, religious, gender, etc.) kindly while alienating and attacking others. 

The times when respect is applied may be predictable (certain people or groups are predictably respected or not respected) or unpredictable (who is treated respectfully varies from moment to moment).

Important Ethical Principles Selective Respect Violates:

  • Respect for Others (the ethical principle is not respect for certain others, it is respect for all others)
  • Respect for Differences (this requires moving beyond the “like me” bias)
  • Trustworthiness (only some people can trust you to treat them well)
  • Moral Awareness (shows a lack of awareness that respect is a minimum standard for ethical leadership and must be universally applied)
  • Ethical Competence (selective respect is a sign of failure to stay ethically  competent)
  • Ethical Thinking (believing that some people are “not worthy” of respect is unethical thinking)
  • Modeling Expected Behavior (selective respect shows others the route to an unethical path, multiplying the error and the harm it generates)

Are you tired of people talking about toxic leadership behaviors as different “styles” or different approaches to leadership, without saying what really needed to be said? When you see leaders using selective respect, call it what it is – unethical leadership.


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©2019 Leading in Context LLC




In the post comments, one reader mentioned the risks of “calling out” an ethical leader in a toxic culture. If you work in a toxic culture, read Taking on a Workplace Bully to assess the risks before you call out unethical leadership. 

For More on Unethical Leadership: Unethical Thinking Leads to Unethical Leadership

Building Trust: What to Weed Out

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I was weeding in the garden this week, and I discovered two new weeds that were taller than I was. I started thinking about how quickly things can get away from us, in the garden and in our organizations. There are actions we must take to build a high trust workplace. But there are equally important things that we must prevent or weed out for trust to flourish.

What are the things that can get away from us if not corrected quickly? What can damage the trust we have worked so hard to build? What do we need to weed out for trust to flourish?

Blog Photo 4

A “Weed Out” List For Trust Building

  • Needing to be “right”
  • Being too busy to listen
  • Saying one thing and doing another
  • Treating people like “resources” rather than humans
  • Being disrespectful to any one or any group
  • Selectively praising only favorite employees
  • Blaming instead of resolving the problem
  • Correcting employees in public
  • Withholding information from people who need it to be successful
  • Asking people to do something you are not willing to do
  • Vague values
  • Mixed messages (“use the highest ethics” AND “do whatever it takes to make the numbers”)
  • Oversimplified conversations about ethics (which leaves it to individual discretion)
  • Fear-based or controlling leadership
  • Failure of leaders to learn and grow as times change
  • Not listening to employees who want to improve processes and results
  • Using profit-centered (instead of values-centered) leadership
  • Ignoring work complexity and leaving people to “figure it out”
  • Status-based communication (top down, don’t ask questions)
  • Using cause-and-effect thinking in a systems world
  • Generating high stress situations (without providing support for employee well-being)

I realize now that this list could go on… and on…. What else do you think we should “weed out” to build and nurture high trust cultures?



For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2014 Leading in Context LLC 

Leading For Ethical Performance

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Discouraging Unethical Leadership 

One of the most important responsibilities of the senior leadership team is to discourage unethical behavior and build an ethical culture. Senior leaders need to work together as a team to create an organization where ethical leadership is rewarded and unethical leadership is quickly corrected.

Modeling Ethical Behavior 

To build an ethical company, every senior leader needs to model the ethical leadership behavior that is expected, and promote ongoing conversations about how to lead ethically.

Leading Organizational Ethics

Beyond modeling expected ethical behavior, each senior leader also leads the ethical aspects of their role for the organization as a whole. For example, the Chief Human Resource Officer also oversees the ethical performance management system, and the The Chief Learning Officer works to build the organization’s ethical understanding and ethical competence.

To build an ethical organization over time, Chief Learning Officers can work with leaders throughout the organization to build ethical competence in areas that support effective communication and leadership. Building ethical competence and having an ongoing dialogue about ethical leadership will make it easier to identify and correct unethical behavior (think about the headlines and lessons learned as you review this list that can get you started):

• Employees who ask tough questions of leaders are praised, not punished or ignored.

• Leaders are evaluated on how they communicate and lead, not just on their bottom line results.

• Employees are screened for ethical behavior before they are hired.

• Performance problems are corrected quickly, so that they are not given time to be considered acceptable  by others.

• Recognition is given to leaders who achieve financial goals ethically, while engaging employees and using responsible leadership (not to leaders who achieve results at the expense of employees, customers, or organizational values).

Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethical Leadership Training: Why is it So Hard to get it Right?, Training and Development Journal, Best of Leadership Development 2009

Individual Effort, Collaborative Effort

Leading for ethical performance requires a concerted effort from each member of the senior leadership team and a collaborative, integrated approach at the team level.

Leading for ethical performance requires:

  • aligning performance management around clear ethical expectations for behavior
  • hiring for ethical performance
  • modeling ethical leadership expectations at all leadership levels
  • requiring that those expectations are met every time, and
  • developing ethical leaders using ongoing dialogue and training

Building an Ethical Culture

By leading for ethical performance, senior leaders are also creating a work culture where people work well together as a team.

“Our work indicates that not only do leaders have to be moral individuals, but also have to go one step further and actively model ethical behaviors and use reward and punishment systems to influence followers’ behaviors. Thus, companies that can hire and/or train ethical leaders are more likely to create ethical and interpersonally harmonious work environments.”

Mayer, Acuino, Greenbaum & Kuenzi, Who Displays Ethical Leadership and Why Does it Matter? , Academy of Management Journal 2012, online at bus.umich.edu.

Related Article:

Ethical Leadership Culture: The Case of The Dissenting Senior Leader, Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog, January 26, 2011


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 

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