Moral Leadership: Do Women Negotiate More Ethically than Men?

Moral leadership involves encouraging others to negotiate ethically when representing their organization. Recent research looks at whether gender differences in moral identity affect how people bargain.

By — on / Leadership Skills

moral leadership

A key component of moral leadership is motivating others to live up to their personal ethical standards and those of your organization, even in the face of temptations to behave unethically. Women are generally less accepting of unethical behavior than men are and tend to behave more ethically than men in a wide variety of contexts, past research has found. Is this true in negotiation as well? The answer to this question may have implications for the role of leadership in negotiation.

Overall, women have been found to be less tolerant than men of a wide array of unethical negotiating strategies. In a study by Michael P. Haselhuhn and Elaine M. Wong of the University of California, Riverside, for example, 25% of men used deception to negotiate a deal as compared with only 11% of women.

In their 2017 Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes article “A Social-Cognitive Approach to Understanding Gender Differences in Negotiator Ethics: The Role of Moral Identity,” Jessica A. Kennedy (Vanderbilt University), Laura J. Kray (University of California, Berkeley), and Gillian Ku (London Business School) looked more closely at possible gender differences in negotiator ethics. The study’s nuanced findings can inform those aspiring to moral leadership. 

Relationship Goals

As compared with men, women are more likely to be socialized to view themselves as interdependent with others and to be more attuned to relationships and others’ emotions. Generally speaking, men are socialized to define themselves as more independent and less reliant on others.

Consequently, Kennedy, Kray, and Ku hypothesized that women internalize morality into their identities more strongly than men do. “Because being moral helps people build and maintain relationships,” Kennedy and her colleagues write, “women are likely to adopt goals and values that promote the welfare of others. Over time, these goals and values may translate into identifying strongly as a moral person.” Because people with stronger moral identities tend to behave more ethically, the researchers hypothesized that women also would be more ethical negotiators.

Moral Disengagement

In several experiments, the researchers found some support for their theorizing—but only up to a point.

In one experiment, the researchers measured participants’ sense of moral identity, in part by asking how important it was for them to have certain characteristics associated with morality, such as being caring, fair, generous, helpful, and so on. Next, participants read a negotiation scenario involving the sale of a used car that had one minor and one major mechanical problem. The researchers then measured participants’ degree of moral disengagement—the extent to which they rationalized away unethical decisions—and assessed how committed participants were to negotiating ethically with a potential buyer of the used car.

Female participants internalized moral traits more strongly than male participants. They also were less likely than men to morally disengage from unethical negotiating practices and were significantly less supportive than the men of unethical negotiating tactics.

When Money Trumps Ethical Concerns

Interestingly, however, women’s negotiation behavior was not morally superior in a follow-up experiment by Kennedy, Kray, and Ku. In the experiment, participants played the role of a hiring manager negotiating the salary of a job candidate. The participants were told that the job would be eliminated in six months due to a restructuring, a fact that the candidate did not know.

Would women be more likely than men to reveal this fact to the candidate? When participants did not have explicit financial incentives to reveal the information, women were more forthright than men about the short-term nature of the job in the simulation that followed. However, when participants were told they would receive $100 for negotiating the lowest salary, women were just as likely as men to behave unethically.

Overall, the findings suggest that women may be socialized to be more ethical negotiators than men. However, when financial incentives to lie or cheat loom large, women may be just as tempted as men to focus on maximizing profit at the expense of their morality.

These results have implications for organizational leadership. In particular, when following principles of moral leadership, it would be a mistake to assume that male employees are more likely to behave unethically than female employees. No matter a person’s gender, financial incentives can tempt them to take ethical shortcuts. To encourage more ethical behavior, highlight the ethical concerns that surround upcoming negotiations and reduce financial incentives to behave unethically.

What other leadership qualities and practices of moral leadership have you found to be useful in negotiation?


The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
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