Ethical Sales Leadership? Focus on Emotions

This is my favorite: a sentence frequently used in sales review meetings – “do whatever you need to do but get me the numbers”! Interestingly enough, this sentence gets repeated at all levels of the hierarchy up to the frontline manager. Clearly, an overload of performance orientation and neglect of learning orientation leads to such statements and an environment that can be a good ground for poor ethical attitude and eventually, unethical sales behaviors. One can think of any business context and this causal sequence will possibly hold true for poor ethical decision making.

Scholars have demonstrated that people with unmet goals were more likely to engage in unethical behavior than people just attempting to do their best to perform and this was found valid in both situations; with or without economic incentives to achieve goals. The study(1) further established that people were more likely to engage in unethical behavior when they were just short of achieving their goals. In managerial words, this could be explained as driving people for the final push. Turns out this “final push’ at the month-end and or the quarter-end is the real driver of unethical conduct of salespeople. This relationship held for goals both with and without economic incentives. We also found that the relationship between goal setting and unethical behavior was particularly strong when people fell just short of reaching their goals. Therefore, there are two aspects of goal setting that confront managers today; how to arrive at the targets? And how much ‘push’ to be deployed to achieve the targets? This conflict could be more profound in industries that are facing disruptions (e.g print media business in India) and it could be difficult to accept and explain realities in objective terms. And more importantly, as a leader how do you ensure that you do not drive your salesforce into unethical selling behaviors.

In a study (2) that we published in the Journal of Business Ethics, we identified two emotional traits that were positively linked with ethical intentions of salespeople. The first trait is empathy, labeled as essential for effective leadership, and the second one is about guilt-proneness. Empathy is about how much the sales leader cares for the sales force and therefore enforces his/her concern for the sales teams. Therefore, if a sales manager is low on empathy, he/she is more likely to justify any means to achieve the end goals. However, empathetic leaders resist this possibility by articulating their goals more objectively and focus on the just means to achieve the targeted goals. The second trait is about guilt-proneness; a predisposition to feel repentant and remorseful. Leaders who have a bigger capacity for guilt are more likely to be careful about the well-being of others (sales team members). A leader characterized by a high level of guilt-proneness will be extremely sensitive about the sense of duty and responsibility. Such leaders are likely to be high on compliance as well. Leaders with a higher sense of guilt are careful about the ethical fallout of the “final push” and they deploy corrections to mitigate risks from questionable ethical situations.

Therefore, sales managers should self-regulate these two emotion-based traits in a manner that helps them achieve the right balance of ethical conduct and performance. This suggestion might sound antithesis to what is popularly believed and practiced in sales; be aggressive (excessive results focus) and deliver (no guilt whatsoever). However, if organizations are keen to operate their selling systems with an appropriate ethical boundary, they must focus on the softer side of leadership that is built on strong moral based emotions.

  1. Schweitzer, Maurice E., Lisa Ordóñez, and Bambi Douma. “Goal setting as a motivator of unethical behavior.” Academy of Management Journal3 (2004): 422-432.

  1. Agnihotri, R., Rapp, A., Kothandaraman, P., & Singh, R. K. (2012). An emotion-based model of salesperson ethical behaviors. Journal of Business Ethics109(2), 243-257.(





3 thoughts on “Ethical Sales Leadership? Focus on Emotions

  1. Aishwarya Chaudhari

    Great Write-up Sir! This is extremely relevant in today’s era as competition grows more and more fierce while the already grey lines between what is and isn’t ethical become all the more indefinite. Does it also subtly imply that great leaders cannot be made and are essentially born? This is with reference to the presence of the traits of Empathy and guilt-proneness which have to be present in one’s DNA up to a certain level to be enhanced further!

  2. Thanks for your comment. Empathy and guilt proneness are malleable to a great extent. For example, I have seen leaders getting better with empathy over the years. However, personal values have an important role to play – the general rules of life that we learn in our growing up years. Think about your own set of values and you would appreciate my point. Mostly, I believe leaders are made. On a lighter note, precisely the reason why some of them have defective moral compass 🙂

  3. Ashutosh Kumar Dubey

    Sir, this post makes a delectable read. Such subtle and nuanced things explained so simply well. I really like emotions and ethics playing a part in real-life situations such as these.

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