Middle managers may turn to unethical behavior to face unrealistic expectations
In a study of a large telecommunications company, researchers found that middle managers used a range of tactics to inflate their subordinates' performance and deceive top management.
This is according to Linda Treviño, distinguished professor of organizational behavior and ethics, Smeal College of Business, Penn State.
The managers may have been motivated to engage in this behavior because leadership instituted performance targets that were unrealizable, she added.
When creating a new unit, a company's top management usually also sketches out the unit's performance routines - for example, they set goals, develop incentives and designate certain responsibilities, according to the researchers.
Middle managers are then tasked with carrying out these new directives. But, in the company studied by the researchers, this turned out to be impossible.
"What we found in this particular case - but I think it happens a lot - is that there were obstacles in the way of achieving these goals set by top management," said Treviño.
"For a variety of reasons, the goals were unrealistic and unachievable. The workers didn't have enough training. They didn't feel competent.
"They didn't know the products well enough. There weren't enough customers and there wasn't even enough time to get all the work done."
Facing these obstacles, middle management enacted a series of moves designed to deceive top management into believing that teams were actually meeting their goals, according to Treviño, who worked with Niki A. den Nieuwenboer, assistant professor of organizational behavior and business ethics, University of Kansas; and Joao Viera da Cunha, associate professor, IESEG School of Management.
"It became clear to middle managers that there was no way their people could meet these goals," said Treviño.
"They got really creative because their bonuses are tied to what their people do, or because they didn't want to lose their jobs.
"Middle managers exploited vulnerabilities they identified in the organization to come up with ways to make it look like their workers were achieving goals when they weren't."
According to the researchers, these strategies included coopting sales from another unit, portraying orders as actual sales and ensuring that the flow of sales data reported in the company's IT system looked normal.
Middle managers created some of these behaviors on their own, but they also learned tactics from other managers, according to the researchers, who report their findings in Organization Science, online now.
Middle managers also used a range of tactics to coerce their subordinates to keep up the ruse, including rewards for unethical behavior and public shaming for those who were reluctant to engage in the unethical tactics.
"Interestingly, what we didn't see is managers speaking up, we didn't see them pushing back against the unrealistic goals," said Treviño.
"We know a lot about what we refer to as 'voice' in an organization and people are fearful and they tend to keep quiet for the most part." ■
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