Too many sheep in the flock? Span of control attenuates the influence of ethical leadership

Chase E. Thiel, Jay H. Hardy, David R. Peterson, David Welsh, Julena M. Bonner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


There has been growing interest in ethical leadership from both scholars and practitioners because of the positive effects that ethical leaders can have on their subordinates. These benefits come not only from ethical leaders acting as moral exemplars, but also from the tendency for ethical leaders to forge high-quality social exchange relationships with subordinates that help to establish expectations for appropriate conduct and ensure accountability through reciprocal obligation. However, the act of developing and maintaining strong social exchange relationships is resource intensive and requires considerable personal investment from ethical leaders. Extending current theory, we propose that wider spans of control attenuate the positive relationship between ethical leadership and leader-member exchange (LMX). Across two organizational samples, we developed and tested a moderated mediation model in which the effects of ethical leadership on performance, organizational citizenship behavior, and reduced production deviance via LMX were weakened by a widened span of control. Results in both studies supported the hypothesized model. Although it may be tempting to increase the number of subordinates assigned to ethical leaders in an effort to maximize their positive impact, the current findings suggest that the benefits of ethical leadership are diminished as span of control widens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1324-1334
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Applied Psychology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2018


  • Ethical leadership
  • Leader-member exchange
  • Span of control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology


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