Anyone who’s ever been part of a high-performing team knows it: When you’re on top of the world, there’s nowhere you’d rather be. The tie between strong performance and how engaged and optimistic team members feel is well documented — and it stands to reason. When you’re doing well, you love being part of the team, and the future looks rosy because everyone loves to win.

Of course the inverse also holds. When things start to look rocky, people naturally begin questioning the team. They lose confidence in its collective ability to perform. Worse, they may start wondering whether it’s time to jump ship.

The question is: What can leaders do to help teams weather dips in performance? And more to the point: Are there certain behaviors that contribute to keeping a team together — say, modeling ethical leadership? How much sway does a good, ethical leader have when it comes to keeping a team on track when the going gets tough?

Plenty, says Darden Professor Sean Martin.

High Ethics in the Low Times: The Research

Martin and colleagues from the universities of Delaware and Arizona and the United States Military Academy at West Point took a novel look at the tie between ethical leadership and team dynamics when performance dips.  

“We hypothesized that when teams experience hardship or setbacks, leadership matters more than when you’re performing well. Specifically, we reasoned that ethical leaders — those who model certain values and behaviors and who hold the trust of their team members — that these leaders would be more likely to keep the teams resilient, to help them bounce back by preserving their confidence and commitment to the group. So we decided to put this to the test.”

Martin and co-authors ran a field study with cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — an elite university and launching pad for future high-performing army officers. Each year, West Point hosts the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition, in which teams of trainees from around the world compete across a range of simulated war games and exercises.

“The competing teams train for months for this competition, and they are given a bunch of physically and mentally demanding tasks to perform: scaling walls, extracting vehicles from mud, navigating lowlight shooting ranges, etc. The exercises are very exciting, but they’re also hugely challenging. To perform well, the cadets need good team dynamics and coordination.”

Martin et al. captured data from participating U.S. teams at three critical time points: Two weeks before the competition, during the competition and a few days after its completion.

“In the first survey, we asked the cadets to rate their team captain in terms of his or her ethical leadership and to give us feedback on their own feelings of confidence and integration or belonging to their group,” says Martin. “During the competition, we observed the teams and captured their performance scores. And at the end we got them to tell us how confident and committed they felt about their team and the team’s future performance — and how they felt about remaining a member of that team going forward.”

Poor Performance and the Leader

After running regressions on the data, Martin and his colleagues established that while how they fared during the competition was a “huge predictor” of what members felt about the team going forward, the negative impact of poor performance was significantly attenuated by the qualities of the team captain. 

Looking at those that hadn’t done so well in the competition, the research showed that teams with leaders considered good and ethical felt 4 percent less socially engaged and 5 percent less confident in their team than before. But with teams whose captains’ behavior were deemed less ethical, these scores plummeted much further: They were 12 percent less committed to the group and 18 percent less sure of its capabilities to perform better.

“To put that another way,” says Martin, “teams with less ethical leaders, as we measured it here, saw social engagement and confidence scores drop about four times more than teams with good, ethical captains.”

Are you an ethical leader?

Ethical leaders are considered to set a positive example of how to behave. These are leaders who are open, transparent, who encourage bidirectional communication and who reward and sanction those who uphold values and standards and those who do not. In assessing poor performance, they focus on the positives and on the learnings as a way of taking sting out of failure and driving forward momentum.

Based on research detailed in “Ethical Leadership: A Social Learning Perspective for Construct Development and Testing,” in this study, ethical leaders were defined as those who1 :

  • Listen to what others have to say
  • Discipline those who violate ethical standards
  • Conduct their personal life in an ethical manner
  • Have the best interests of subordinates in mind
  • Make fair and balanced decisions
  • Discuss ethics or values with subordinates
  • Set an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics)
  • Define success not just by results but also the way that they are obtained
  • When making decisions, ask: “what is the right thing to do?”
  • Can be trusted

A Sense of Unity and Confidence

For leaders and organizations, says Martin, these results have profound implications; especially in the current climate of quicksilver change and uncertainty.

“Having an ethical leader is incredibly important, because when a team faces failure — which it will — if the boss is unethical, people are going to want to bail from that team or from that company. If you want teams to be more resilient to failure, you need to have ethical leaders at the helm, because they have a really big impact on how people feel about moving forward and staying the distance.”

With remote working and social distancing in place in many countries, the stakes are higher than ever before, he adds.

“COVID-19 has made it hard to build and maintain trust, which is a core part of ethical leadership. Teams and companies of all kinds feel fractured, separated and lacking in confidence in the future. So right now, striving for ethical leadership is more important than ever, and it’s hard: It’s hard to show people you care about them when you’re physically distant. It’s hard to show people you are competent and good at your job when they’re not around to see it.”

Martin recommends that leaders double down on their efforts to communicate, listen and “demonstrate their integrity.”

“It's more important than ever to show that you are principled and that you stand for something. Right now your people are looking to you to create the sense of unity and the confidence that your people will get through this, come out of it and thrive in the future. And how successful you are will depend very largely on how ethical your leadership is.”

Sean Martin co-authored “Keeping Teams Together: How Ethical Leadership Moderates the Effects of Performance on Team Efficacy and Social Integration,” which appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics, with Kyle J. Emich of the University of Delaware Lerner College of Business, Elizabeth J. McClean of the University of Arizona Eller College of Management and Colonel Todd Woodruff of the United State Military Academy at West Point.

  • 1Michael E. Brown, Linda K. Trevino, David A. Harrison, “Ethical Leadership: A Social Learning Perspective for Construct Development and Testing,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 97, No. 2 (July 2005): 117–134.
About the Expert

Sean Martin

Donald and Lauren Morel Associate Professor of Business Administration

An expert in leadership, social class and ethics, Martin’s research addresses how organizational and societal contexts impart values and beliefs onto leaders and followers, and how those values influence their behaviors and experiences. His work has been featured in top academic journals, including Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Business Ethics and Organizational Psychology Review, as well as mainstream media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Harvard Business Review and Comedy Central. 

Prior to joining the Darden faculty, Martin taught at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. 

B.A., University of California, Santa Barbara; MBA, California Polytechnic State University; Ph.D., Cornell University Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management