Anxiety Can Lead to Unethical Behavior According to New Research By UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Professor

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UNC Kenan-Flagler professor Sreedhari Desai and Maryam Kouchaki of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University find that people who feel anxious are more likely to act unethically.

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Anxiety is bad for good behavior.

That’s because people who feel anxious are more likely to act unethically, according to research by Sreedhari Desai of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and Maryam Kouchaki of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

“Individuals who feel anxious and threatened can take on self-defensive behaviors and focus narrowly on their own basic needs and self-interest,” said Desai. “This can cause them to be less mindful of principles that guide ethical and moral reasoning – and make them rationalize their own actions as acceptable.”

Across six studies, the researchers showed that anxiety can lead to this self-interested unethical behavior. They detail their findings in “Anxious, Threatened and Also Unethical: How Anxiety Makes Individuals Feel Threatened and Commit Unethical Acts,” which is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Our work clearly has implications for organizational managers and policy makers,” said Desai. “The United States is the most anxious nation on the planet, according to the World Health Organization.”

“By altering corporate culture to reduce anxiety, organizations could have a healthier workforce – and an ethical workforce,” said Desai, who shared recommendations for changing organizational culture.

  •     Companies such as Google have incorporated playful furniture and play stations in their work environment, emphasizing that playfulness and failure are a part and parcel of experimentation and innovation. Such subtle cues along with flex-time could help ameliorate anxiety levels among employees.
  •     Sponsoring gym memberships for employees might nudge them into getting adequate physical exercise, which is a proven way to keep stress in check and lower blood pressure. Organizations such as Johnson & Johnson have permitted employees to bring yoga mats to the workplace and do yoga during their lunch hour. Meditation and deep breathing are known to calm frayed nerves and encouraging yoga and similar exercises might not only boost the general wellbeing of employees but also improve the ethical climate of the organization.
  •     Sleep deprivation has been known to result in higher levels of stress and anxiety, so setting realistic expectations for employees in terms of a manageable workload and do not need to work extra hours in the night or over the weekend can ensure that anxiety levels can be kept a minimum.
  •     A widely recognized source of anxiety for employees is work-family imbalance. Offering onsite daycare services could help alleviate employees’ stress.


About the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School
Consistently ranked one of the world's best business schools, UNC Kenan-Flagler is known for its collaborative culture that stems from its core values: excellence, leadership, integrity, community and teamwork. Professors excel at both teaching and research, and demonstrate unparalleled dedication to students. Graduates are effective, principled leaders who have the technical and managerial skills to deliver results in the global business environment. UNC Kenan-Flagler offers a rich portfolio of programs and extraordinary, real-life learning experiences: Undergraduate Business (BSBA), full-time MBA, Executive MBA Programs (Evening, Weekend and global OneMBA®), online MBA@UNC, UNC-Tsinghua Dual-Degree EMBA, Master of Accounting, PhD, Executive Development, and UNC Business Essentials programs. It is home to the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

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