Stand by your group: Loyalty can blur ethics line

Calling for loyalty to a group, rather than to an individual, was more effective in eliciting followers’ compliance with unethical requests, a Cornell researcher found.

What’s more, the research showed, followers of a group viewed their bad behavior in the name of a larger cause as righteous.

Angus Hildreth, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, put the tension between allegiance and unethical behavior to the test in six studies featuring unethical compliance in the name of loyalty.

Hildreth’s paper, “When Loyalty Binds: Examining the Effectiveness of Group Versus Personal Loyalty Calls on Followers’ Compliance with Leaders’ Unethical Requests,” published Feb. 17 in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Hildreth authored his first paper on loyalty in 2016, and said his interest was stimulated by a debate he had with a co-author, Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman. “He thought loyalty was inherently bad; I thought it was inherently good,” Hildreth said. “We were intrigued as to whether, and when, loyalty prompts people to do good or bad.”

The answer isn’t simple.

We found it was nuanced,” Hildreth said. “Absent any direction, loyalty seems to prompt you to do good and sort of makes salient other ethical or moral values. But the moment you start directing it, it can prompt you to do bad things and ignore other ethical values.”

With the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism and tribalism, there is renewed interest in the effectiveness of loyalty as a leadership strategy, and in the consequences of loyalty calls on those called to pledge their allegiance.

In the studies, Hildreth tested his theory that unethical requests made in the name of a group, as opposed to an individual, are more readily fulfilled. Compliance was measured in three areas: college fraternities; students in the classroom; and workers interacting online. Hildreth recruited a total of 2,470 participants for his experiments, which both manipulated and measured compliance with unethical requests as a proxy for loyalty.

In the first study, involving a college fraternity, 200 participants were given a problem-solving task with a time limit, and were told that they could win money for their frat based on their performance. Fraternity presidents were recruited by Hildreth to instruct their members to cheat (“… report the maximum; they don’t check your answers …”) with the loyalty target manipulated: no loyalty (“… so don’t sweat it!”); loyalty to the president (“… so keep in mind your loyalty to me!”); or loyalty to the frat (“… so keep in mind your loyalty to the house!”).

Of those who acted with loyalty either to the president or to the house, 67% (90 of 134) cheated, compared to just 42% (28 of 66) in the no-loyalty condition. And those whose loyalty was to the group were more likely to cheat, and cheat more egregiously, than those whose loyalty was to the individual.

Hildreth got similar results in five other experiments. Groups of graduate students were assigned a problem-solving task by a supposed group leader, with the instruction to cheat (“report the maximum!”); and in four moderation hypothesis studies, participants were randomly assigned a condition and a scenario based on that condition, and then reported whether they would comply with the leaders’ unethical request.

Future work will focus on the role of a subordinate, or “fixer,” in helping engender loyalty to a higher-ranking individual. “I’m fascinated by that role,” he said, “and by what the people being influenced by that fixer actually think about. Is that fixer more influential, or is it this consensus effect, where it’s not just one person asking you to do something, but two?”

For observers, Hildreth said, doing the right thing ethically, regardless of questions of loyalty, seems easy. But when faced with a choice between loyalty and ethics, it’s not so cut and dried.

“Most observers seem to judge those things based on the more universal value of being honest,” he said. “But when you’re in the situation yourself, suddenly loyalty becomes just much more weighty. And maybe it blinds you.”

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Abby Kozlowski