Supervisors’ ethical leadership and employee job satisfaction: A social cognitive perspective

In Western cultures, there has been a trend towards adopting flatter, less hierarchical organisational structures. This has allowed leaders and supervisors to influence employees’ job satisfaction in less rigid or bureaucratic ways e.g. by adopting a more ethical, or moral style of leadership.
The positive influence of ethical leadership on employee job satisfaction has been confirmed by research conducted in Western countries such as the United States (Avey et al. 2012; Neubert et al. 2009), Canada (Ogunfowora 2014) and Spain (Ruiz et al. 2011). But what influence can ethical leadership have in more hierarchical cultures, for example, in China, where employees are expected to show respect and obedience towards authority?

Recent research conducted by Associate Professors Yidong Tu, Yue Yu (Wuhan University) and Xinxin Lu (Renmin University of China) sought to address this question and look further into how ethical leadership influences employee job satisfaction. Firstly, the researchers explored whether, in China, supervisors’ ethical leadership is positively related to employee job satisfaction. Secondly, they examined the interaction between ethical leadership and the employee’s own moral awareness and identity.

Ultimately the research found that in China, as in Western cultures, a supervisors’ ethical leadership was positively correlated to job satisfaction as well as employee moral awareness and moral identity. In answering their second question, it was found that employee moral awareness and identity in part mediated the relationship between supervisorial ethical leadership and employee job satisfaction. In essence, the more morally aware an employee, the more important a leader’s ethical leadership will be to an employee’s job satisfaction.


The research aimed, firstly, to investigate the relationship between supervisors’ ethical leadership and employee job satisfaction in the Chinese context, and secondly, to explore how employees’ own moral cognition impacts the extent to which ethical leadership can influence job satisfaction. “Ethical leadership” is defined as the “demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision making” (Brown et al. 2005).


A survey was conducted in conjunction with the human resources department of a state-owned Chinese organisation with approximately 3,000 employees. The survey questions used a Likert scale (from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree) to measure four variables:

  1. supervisors’ ethical leadership;
  2. employees’ moral awareness;
  3. employees’ moral identity, and;
  4. employees’ job satisfaction.

Of the 400 surveys distributed, 375 responses were collected and 371 were deemed valid responses.

Key findings

The research examined the relationship between internal and external influences on employee job satisfaction and made two key findings: (1) Ethical leadership of a supervisor is positively related to an employee’s moral awareness, moral identity and job satisfaction; and, (2) An employee’s moral awareness impacts the extent to which they can be influenced by ethical leadership and gain job satisfaction. In comparing their findings to studies done in a Western context, it was found that the influence of ethical leadership on employee job satisfaction was higher than in two studies conducted in the West.

  • Ethical leadership of a supervisor is positively related to an employee’s moral awareness, moral identity and job satisfaction

Compared with two studies in a Western context (e.g. Avey et al. 2012; Neubert et al. 2009), the coefficient, or influence, of supervisor ethical leadership on employee job satisfaction in the present study (.49) was larger than those in previous studies (ranging from .38 to .44). This could be explained by the fact that Chinese employees are more sensitive to leaders’ ethics and the emphasis that Chinese culture places on ethics as a fundamental and inalienable human trait.

  • An employee’s moral awareness impacted the extent to which they can be influenced by ethical leadership and gain job satisfaction

The study proposed that, as a result of ethical leadership, employees will internalise the organisation’s ethical codes and increase their moral awareness. As a result, when a person has a higher moral identity, he or she will experience more satisfaction in the workplace. However, the indirect effect, or influence, was only .11 and the direct effect of ethical leadership on job satisfaction was .38 after controlling for mediating factors. This indicates there may be other links between supervisors’ ethical leadership and employee job satisfaction to be explored.


The research validated a commonly accepted view in the West of ethical leadership and applied it to a Chinese context. With China well and truly a global player politically, socially and economically, the findings demonstrate the universality of the notion that ethical leaders can positively influence the employee experience and job satisfaction. This is despite the fact that Chinese and Western cultures are situated at  opposite ends of the power distance orientation scale. Business leaders should be aware of the role that they can play on employee wellbeing, no matter where in the world they are.

The research highlights that employees who have a strong moral awareness or identity are more likely to enjoy higher job satisfaction as a result of ethical leadership and provides strong impetus to supervisors to take action to promote ethical behavior in the workplace. The researchers argue that organisations with a workforce with high moral awareness and identity should celebrate these attributes by placing them at the core of their workplace culture, if they are not already doing so.

For more information, please contact Patrick Testa

To read the full article, see Tu, Y., Lu, X., Yu, Y. 2017, ‘Supervisors’ Ethical Leadership and Employee Job Satisfaction: A Social Cognitive Perspective’, Journal of Happiness Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 229-245

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