The hidden dark side of empowering leadership: The moderating role of hindrance stressors in explaining when empowering employees can promote moral disengagement and unethical pro-organizational behavior

J Appl Psychol. 2022 Dec;107(12):2220-2242. doi: 10.1037/apl0001013. Epub 2022 Mar 14.


The majority of theory and research on empowering leadership to date has focused on how empowering leader behaviors influence employees, portraying those behaviors as almost exclusively beneficial. We depart from this predominant consensus to focus on the potential detriments of empowering leadership for employees. Drawing from the social cognitive theory of morality, we propose that empowering leadership can unintentionally increase employees' unethical pro-organizational behavior (UPB), and that it does so by increasing their levels of moral disengagement. Specifically, we propose that hindrance stressors create a reversing effect, such that empowering leadership increases (vs. decreases) moral disengagement when hindrance stressors are higher (vs. lower). Ultimately, we argue for a positive or negative indirect effect of empowering leadership on UPB through moral disengagement. We find support for our predictions in both a time-lagged field study (Study 1) and a scenario-based experiment using an anagram cheating task (Study 2). We thus highlight the impact that empowering leadership can have on unethical behavior, providing answers to both why and when the dark side of empowering leadership behavior occurs. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Employment* / psychology
  • Humans
  • Leadership*
  • Morals
  • Power, Psychological
  • Social Behavior