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Contempt and arrogance at the root of poor leadership

Unethical conduct towards staff has more to do with feelings than reasoning
14 October 2015

Overconfidence and contempt for others are important causes of unethical conduct on the part of managers, such as lying to, verbally abusing, publicly criticising and belittling their staff. Although rational choices are often thought to be at the root of this kind of unethical leadership, it would appear that emotions play a larger part than previously assumed. This is one of the findings from research carried out by psychologist Stacey Sanders, who will be awarded a PhD on the subject by the University of Groningen.

Approximately one in every nine employees in the Netherlands has a boss who displays unethical behaviour towards his/her staff. The financial costs of this behaviour (caused by absenteeism, for example) are huge. In the USA, they amount to more than $ 20 billion a year. ‘I think it’s important to identify the factors that cause this behaviour. I am particularly interested in the emotional factors, as they seem to play a much larger part than we previously assumed,’ says Sanders. She carried out experiments on students and conducted field studies in various organizations to find out which emotions are involved.

Hubristic pride and contempt

Unlike ‘authentic pride’, ‘hubristic pride’ is not based on actual achievements but on bluff and arrogance. Authentically proud managers behave more ethically towards their staff than hubristically proud managers, particularly when they have a strong moral compass. ‘When a manager’s moral compass is activated, unethical tendencies will disappear of their own accord’ says Sanders. She ascertained that feeling contempt for staff has the opposite effect. ‘This means that the more contempt a manager feels for his/her staff, the greater his/her tendency to behave badly towards them.’

Cover dissertation
Cover dissertation


It has already been proved that having more power brings out a manager’s nastier traits. This also applies to feelings of contempt, explains Sanders. ‘We suspected that managers with a tendency to feel contempt towards others would find it particularly difficult to act selflessly or ethically towards staff when given more power. Our results substantiate this.’

Hot sauce

It also turns out that subordinates with a boss who treats them with contempt also display deviant behaviour, by taking revenge for example. Sanders came up with a telling experiment for the students. ‘The test subjects were asked to decide how much hot (spicy) sauce they wanted their manager to consume for the experiment. Unethical managers were prescribed much more of the hot sauce than ethical managers because people did not think they would feel guilty about taking revenge on an unethical manager in this way.’


Stacey Sanders (1986) studied employment and organization psychology at the University of Groningen, where she also completed a Research Master’s degree in Behavioural and Social Sciences. She now lectures in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Groningen. On 22 October, she will defend her thesis, entitled Unearthing the Moral Emotive Compass, Exploring the Paths to (Un)Ethical Leadership . Her promotors are Prof Barbara Wisse and Prof Nico van Ypereren.

Contact: Stacey Sanders

Last modified:23 February 2021 08.45 a.m.
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