Leader ethical decision-making: methodological suggestions and implications

Martin R., Kusev P.

In this article we discuss quantitative and qualitativeresearch methods, which are commonly (but often independently) employed to research leader ethical decision-making. Moreover, we present a case for how individually, each method is beneficial to the understanding of ethical leader decision-making, yet also involve limitations in their theoretical reach and methodological approach. Accordingly, we suggest that the limitations of one method can be resolved by also implementing the theoretical contributions achieved by the other.

Quantitative research is currently the dominant research method applied to decision-making research. Quantitative data can be obtained from experimental theory-testing methods (such as in a positivist approach to psychology). However, it does come with its limitations, for example, ethical leadership decision-making research (and decision-making research in general) often rely on hypothetical decision-scenarios (not occurring in the natural environment). Alternatively, qualitative research methods can provide more insightful understanding, through introspection of the decision-making experience.

Traditionally, decision-making research (e.g., Greene J.D., Sommerville R.B., Nystrom L.E., Darley J.M., Cohen J.D.,2001, Kahneman D., Tversky A, 1979; Kusev P., van Schaik P., Ayton P., Dent J., Chater N., 2009; KusevР. et al., 2016; Thomson J.J., 1985) employs an experimental research approach of theory/hypothesis testing, generating quantitative data often in the form of fixed-choice responses. This method has been particularly essential to the understanding of how different experimental manipulations can influence the decision-making process (e.g., the two-system view of decision-making; see (Greene J.D. et al., 2001; KahnemanD., 2003) and decision-making outcomes (e.g., normative / rational outcomes). For instance, in relation to ethical leader decision-making, Stenmark and Mumford (Stenmark C.K. & Mumford M.D.,2011) provided an insightful account intosituational impacts on ethicaldecision-making in leaders. Interestingly, their most notable finding demonstrated that decision-requests made by an authority figure as opposed to a peer or subordinate, resulted in middle managers making the most unethical decisions. However, experimental research designs are often criticised for their lack of realism as well as a lack of important introspective data.

For example, as opposed to measuring influences on decision-making in a pseudo-setting, (Heyler S.G., Armenakis A.A., Walker A.G., Collier D. Y., 2016) interviewed military leaders in order to establish how the ethical decision-making process develops over time as a result of experience. Importantly this allows for data collection of actual lived experiences of decision-making as opposed to decision-making data collected in response to manipulations. Of course, however, underlie such processes. 

We specifically assert that research into ethical leader decision-making should begin with a qualitative investigation into the real experiences of decision-makers in leadership positions (as presented in HeylerS. G. et al., 2016). Once themes have been established, these can be arranged into experimentally testable variables which can be used to scientifically validate these introspective claims. Accordingly, leadership research in general is now moving from quantitative-based research to employing a mixed-methods design (StenzJ.D., Plano-Clark, V.L, Matkin G.S., 2012) and we believe this mixed-method approach can particularly inform ethical leader decision-making research.


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    Martin R., Kusev P. Leader ethical decision-making: methodological suggestions and implications // Ананьевские чтения – 2018: Психология личности: традиции и современность: материалы Междунар. науч. конф. Санкт-Петербург, 23-26 октября 2018 г. / Под общ. редакцией Н.В. Гришиной, С.Н. Костроминой. Отв. ред. И.Р. Муртазина, М.О. Аванесян – СПб.: Айсинг, 2018. – 496 с. – С. 45. – 0,1 п.л.


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