Exploring the effects of ethical leadership on the intention of unethical pro-organisational behaviour in the public sector context

Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only


Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Business and Law

First Supervisor

Mehran Nejati

Second Supervisor

Ben Farr-Wharton

Third Supervisor

Tim Bentley


Unethical pro-organisational behaviour (UPB) refers to the unethical actions intending to benefit the organisation, its members, or both. Despite its short-term benefits, UPB ultimately is likely to harm the organisation in the long run. The purpose of the present research was to examine the relationship between ethical leadership (ELS) and UPB in the public sector of Pakistan. As a preliminary step, a formative systematic review on leadership-UPB literature was carried out to identify, evaluate and synthesise the extant research on the topic while highlighting gaps in the literature for future investigations. The review guided the development of the PhD project, investigating the mediating role of the ethical climate, moral identity, and moral disengagement in the ethical leadership-UPB relationship, while also exploring the moderating influence of public service motivation. The main study employed a mixed-methods approach with two phases. In Phase 1, a cross-sectional quantitative survey was conducted using an online Qualtrics questionnaire, and data were analysed through PLSSEM. In Phase 2, a qualitative study involved 21 in-depth interviews with full-time public sector employees in Pakistan to assist interpretation of the quantitative findings and provide rich insights on the perceptions of Pakistani public sector employees on the key relationships identified in the quantitative study.

Based on a survey of 387 respondents, the quantitative results revealed nuanced findings. Firstly, contrary to the proposed hypothesis, the results showed that ethical leadership had a significant positive impact on employees' UPB, this finding attributed to social exchange mechanisms. Additionally, it revealed a significant negative relationship between ELS and UPB through Ethical climate (EC) and moral disengagement (MD), which can be explained through social cognitive theory. Moreover, a full mediation of MD between moral identity (MID) and UPB relationship was also revealed, in addition to a partial mediation between EC and UPB through MID and MD. Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) provides theoretical underpinning for these relationships. Lastly, public service motivation (PSM) showed a marginally significant negative moderation effects on MD and UPB. Insights from the qualitative data provided support for these findings, specifically highlighting the range of contextual factors that may influence the trajectory and character of ELS-UPB relationships in public sector organisations.

The research will contribute to the exiting theory in various ways. First, the systematic review not only highlights the current research gaps and issues, but also provides directions for future research and practice. Second, this study addresses the research gap of ethical leadership’s influence on UPB, which is a grey area with mixed findings in leadership-UPB literature (for example, Kalshoven & Boon, 2016; Miao et al., 2020; Miao et al., 2013; Tang & Li, 2021). Given the complexity of public sector organisations and the paradoxical nature of UPB, the results of the current study revealed some important novel findings. Third, the study addresses the contextual gap in UPB research by focusing on the public sector, specifically in Pakistan, shedding light on the impact of ethical leadership in a context marked by governance challenges, and political and religious complexities. The study will help identify political and administrative undercurrents that may lead to UPB based on (un)ethical leadership. Fourth, instead of using a traditional Social Learning Theory lens (Bandura, 1986a) to explain the linear negative relationship between ELS and unethical behaviour (e.g., Miao et al., 2020; Miao et al., 2013; Hsieh et al., 2020), it uses Social Exchange Theory (SET) and social cognitive theory (SCT) (Bandura, 1986; Bandura, 1999) to reveal the black box of ethical leadership and UPB link in public sector context. Fifth, the study presents a holistic model encompassing organisational, interpersonal, and individual factors to elucidate the intricate dynamics of UPB in the public sector, offering a comprehensive understanding of their interplay. Additionally, being based in the public sector context and having public service motivation as a moderator also contributes to the behavioural public administration theory. Lastly, the study significantly contributes to management research by employing mixed methods research to navigate the complexities of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) in public sector organisations, offering a nuanced understanding of ethical leadership and UPB dynamics.



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