How Good Citizens Enable Bad Leaders

Leaders who take credit for their teams’ good deeds sometimes feel entitled to behave unethically.

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Effective leaders motivate and inspire their teams to engage in what scholars call citizenship behaviors, which go above and beyond job requirements to benefit the organization.1 These behaviors include helping coworkers, taking on additional responsibilities, sharing innovative solutions, and putting in extra hours when necessary. They contribute to company performance by saving scarce resources, increasing organizational stability, enhancing team effectiveness, and making the workplace more attractive.2

Citizenship behaviors can also benefit the individuals who demonstrate them. For instance, they’re associated with positive energy, increased social capital, and higher ratings on performance evaluations.3 One might expect employees who experience such benefits to continue the behaviors. However, a recent line of research on moral self-licensing suggests that today’s good citizens may sometimes feel entitled to behave like bad apples in the future.

That’s because of a human tendency to balance out virtuous acts with subsequent behavior that is less virtuous.4 For example, research shows that people are more likely to cheat and steal after buying environmentally friendly products than they are after buying conventional ones, and they’re more likely to express prejudice after recommending a Black or female candidate for a job.5 Moral self-licensing occurs in the workplace, too: In field studies, employees who engaged in citizenship behaviors because they felt compelled to do so by their organizations, not because of their own intrinsic desires, were more likely to feel licensed to engage in subsequent deviant behavior, such as acting rudely toward coworkers or slacking off.6

Building on such findings, research further shows that people also engage in vicarious moral licensing, granting themselves leeway to do bad things in light of good deeds performed by those who are interpersonally close to them.7 In the workplace, for instance, an employee might claim a moral license to spend the afternoon “cyber-loafing” after a colleague spent the previous weekend finishing up a project to meet a team deadline.



1. R.F. Piccolo and J.A. Colquitt, “Transformational Leadership and Job Behaviors: The Mediating Role of Core Job Characteristics,” Academy of Management Journal 49, no. 2 (April 2006): 327-340.

2. P.M. Podsakoff, S.B. MacKenzie, J.B. Paine, et al., “Organizational Citizenship Behaviors: A Critical Review of the Theoretical and Empirical Literature and Suggestions for Future Research,” Journal of Management 26, no. 3 (January 2000): 513-563.

3. C.F. Lam, W.H. Wan, and C.J. Roussin, “Going the Extra Mile and Feeling Energized: An Enrichment Perspective of Organizational Citizenship Behaviors,” Journal of Applied Psychology 101, no. 3 (November 2016): 379-391; M.C. Bolino, W.H. Turnley, and J.M. Bloodgood, “Citizenship Behavior and the Creation of Social Capital in Organizations,” Academy of Management Review 27, no. 4 (October 2002): 505-522; and N.P. Podsakoff, S.W. Whiting, P.M. Podsakoff, et al., “Individual- and Organizational-Level Consequences of Organizational Citizenship Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 94, no. 1 (January 2009): 122-141.

4. D.A. Effron and P. Conway, “When Virtue Leads to Villainy: Advances in Research on Moral Self-Licensing,” Current Opinion in Psychology 6 (December 2015): 32-35; and D.A. Effron, D.T. Miller, and B. Monin, “Inventing Racist Roads Not Taken: The Licensing Effect of Immoral Counterfactual Behaviors,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103, no. 6 (December 2012): 916-932.

5. N. Mazar and C. Zhong, “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?” Psychological Science 21, no. 4 (April 2010): 494-498; and B. Monin and D.T. Miller, “Moral Credentials and the Expression of Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 1 (July 2001): 33-43.

6. A.C. Klotz and M.C. Bolino, “Citizenship and Counterproductive Work Behavior: A Moral Licensing View,” Academy of Management Review 38, no. 2 (April 2013): 292-306; and K.C. Yam, A.C. Klotz, W. He, et al., “From Good Soldiers to Psychologically Entitled: Examining When and Why Citizenship Behavior Leads to Deviance,” Academy of Management Journal 60, no. 1 (February 2017): 373-396.

7. M. Kouchaki, “Vicarious Moral Licensing: The Influence of Others’ Past Moral Actions on Moral Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101, no. 4 (October 2011): 702-715.

8. M.G. Ahmad, A.C. Klotz, and M.C. Bolino, “Can Good Followers Create Unethical Leaders? How Follower Citizenship Leads to Leader Moral Licensing and Unethical Behavior,” Journal of Applied Psychology, forthcoming.

9. E. Grijalva and L. Zhang, “Narcissism and Self-Insight: A Review and Meta-Analysis of Narcissists’ Self-Enhancement Tendencies,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42, no. 1 (January 2016): 3-24.

10. J.M. Twenge, “The Evidence for Generation Me and Against Generation We,” Emerging Adulthood 1, no. 1 (March 2013): 11-16. See also B. Tracy, “Millennials: New Kids on the Block,” CBS News, Sept. 27, 2015,

11. W.K. Campbell, B.J. Hoffman, S.M. Campbell, et al., “Narcissism in Organizational Contexts,” Human Resource Management Review 21, no. 4 (December 2011): 268-284.

12. M. Giacomin and C.H. Jordan, “Down-Regulating Narcissistic Tendencies: Communal Focus Reduces State Narcissism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40, no. 4 (April 2014): 488-500.

13. B.P. Owens, A.S. Wallace, and D.A. Waldman, “Leader Narcissism and Follower Outcomes: The Counterbalancing Effect of Leader Humility,” Journal of Applied Psychology 100, no. 4 (July 2015): 1203-1213.

14. M.A. Hogg, “Social Identity and the Psychology of Groups,” ch. 23 in “Handbook of Self and Identity,” 2nd ed., eds. M.R. Leary and J.P. Tangney (New York: Guilford Press, 2012); and L.R. Tropp and S.C. Wright, “Ingroup Identification as the Inclusion of Ingroup in the Self,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27, no. 5 (May 2001): 585-600.

15. M. Sousa and D. van Dierendonck, “Servant Leadership and the Effect of the Interaction Between Humility, Action, and Hierarchical Power on Follower Engagement,” Journal of Business Ethics 141, no. 1 (March 2017): 13-25; and C. Moore, D.M. Mayer, F.F.T. Chiang, et al., “Leaders Matter Morally: The Role of Ethical Leadership in Shaping Employee Moral Cognition and Misconduct,” Journal of Applied Psychology 104, no. 1 (January 2019): 123-145.

16. S.G. Taylor, M.D. Griffith, A.K. Vadera, et al., “Breaking the Cycle of Abusive Supervision: How Disidentification and Moral Identity Help the Trickle-Down Change Course,” Journal of Applied Psychology 104, no. 1 (January 2019): 164-182.

17. Yam et al., “From Good Soldiers to Psychologically Entitled,” 373-396.

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Comment (1)
Bharathiraja Ramachandrabose
Very interesting article. I can relate to it so well. Thank you.