Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 153, Issue 3, pp 691–705 | Cite as

How Does Ethical Leadership Trickle Down? Test of an Integrative Dual-Process Model

  • Zhen Wang
  • Haoying Xu
  • Yukun LiuEmail author
Original Paper


Although the trickle-down effect of ethical leadership has been documented in the literature, its underlying mechanism still remains largely unclear. To address this gap, we develop a cross-level dual-process model to explain how the effect occurs. Drawing on social learning theory, we hypothesize that the ethical leadership of high-level managers could cascade to middle-level supervisors via its impact on middle-level supervisors’ two ethical expectations. Using a sample of 69 middle-level supervisors and 381 subordinates across 69 sub-branches from a large banking firm in China, we found that middle-level supervisors’ ethical efficacy expectation and unethical behavior–punishment expectation (as one form of ethical outcome expectations) accounted for the trickle-down effect. The explanatory role of middle-level supervisors’ ethical behavior–reward expectation (as the other form of ethical outcome expectations), however, was not supported. The theoretical and practical implications are discussed.


Ethical leadership Ethical efficacy expectation Ethical outcome expectation Social learning theory 



This study was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Number 71302129).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Institutional Research Committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Organization and Human Resources Management, Business SchoolCentral University of Finance and EconomicsBeijingPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.Department of Management and Organization, NUS Business SchoolNational University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

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