Unethical behavior is bad for business, whether you’re talking about massive scandals a la Enron and Fannie Mae, or just a boss treating employees unfairly. Even worse, research has shown that misbehavior in the office is contagious—people often unintentionally copy their coworkers’ misconduct, especially their bosses.’ Companies have come up with ways to address the problem, such as giving employees ethics training, but now researchers may have found another way to stop bosses’ bad behavior from trickling down to their employees: physical distance.
Distance has a (perhaps unsurprising) cognitive and emotional effect on how we relate to people and things—when things are far away in time or space, we think of them on a more detached, abstract level. “If someone kicks a dog right in front of you, it’ll make you very mad,” explains Gijs van Houwelingen, a researcher at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, “But if you hear about someone somewhere in the world kicking a dog, you probably won’t feel as mad about it.”
Van Houwelingen and his team wanted to show how this phenomenon shapes conduct in the office, and whether it might be an antidote to bosses’ contagious misbehavior. In a recent study published in the Journal of Management, they did a series of experiments to test the question—specifically, they looked at whether middle managers copy or deviate from their boss’s unfair treatment when they work at a distance from each other. In five studies (a mix of surveys and office simulations) the researchers asked people how their boss treated them, how psychologically close they felt to their boss, and how they treated their own employees. Researchers also assessed the physical distance between study participants and their boss.
For example, in one experiment, van Houwelingen set up a simulation where 150 undergrad business students played the role of a middle manager with two subordinate employees and a boss. Participants were told their boss was located in the same room or across campus. They were also told that their boss would assign them either a fun and creative task with a cash bonus at the end, or a tedious task without a bonus—the participants could say which task they preferred, but their boss made the final decision. To simulate an unfair boss, the researchers assigned participants the boring task and sent them either a “fair” or an “unfair” message from their supervisor—one that reasonably explained their boss’s decision to assign the task, and the other in which their bosses blew them off and said they “couldn’t be bothered with such a menial task” so the participants had to do it. The researchers then asked the participants about their boss’s behavior, and also told them to make decisions about how they would treat their own employees.
Through this simulation and the four other experiments, the researchers discovered that when participants were physically near their boss, they were more likely to copy his misconduct and treat their subordinates unfairly. They also found the same effect when someone felt psychologically close—when a participant identified with her boss, she was more likely to imitate his behavior as well.
In their final study, van Houwelingen and his team tied these two factors—psychological and physical closeness—together. They showed that when someone works near his manager, he also feels psychologically closer to the person. The converse was true at larger distances. “We saw that the more distant someone is, they’re less likely to identify with their boss or describe themselves in relation to their boss,” van Houwelingen says.
To sum up their findings: physical distance directly affects how psychologically close people feel to their boss, and this helps determine whether or not they’ll imitate their boss’s unethical behavior. Sean Hannah, a professor of management at Wake Forest University’s School of Business (who wasn’t involved in the study), says this is a new way of thinking about the relationship between employees and their bosses. “A lot of that literature talks about frustration and aggression: ‘my boss treats me unfairly so therefore I’ll lash out at others to get my aggression out, and I abuse my followers because I can’t push back at my leader,’” he says. “This study charts a new way of looking at this line of research with a more identity-based approach.”
Van Houwelingen acknowledges that many other factors play into whether someone acts ethically at the workplace—for example, people who have a strong need to belong to a social group are more likely to copy others’ behavior. But he also says his findings suggest spatial distance plays a critical role in office ethics, and he thinks that this effect likely applies beyond fairness to other types of misconduct, like stealing or lying.
He also has an idea why physical and psychological distance might affect people in this way: it can give people autonomy in decision-making. “With distance, you get detached from what happens around you,” says van Houwelingen. “You might be more likely to evaluate behavior on its own merits,” rather than copying your boss. And this is something that businesses should seriously consider, he says.
Companies can use distance to their advantage by putting at least a little space between middle managers and their bosses. In a big open office, for instance, people could sit across the room from their boss, or even on another floor, or in an entirely different building. Of course, that approach might slow things down, or a company might not even have that kind of space if it’s, say, a small tech startup. Another option: designing an office with flexible workspace where people can get away from their bosses when they need to—a strategy that’s practical even in smaller offices. Van Houwelingen says that beyond office design, it’s important that people have strong relationships with several mentors at work, not just with their boss. “That would reduce the risk of one person’s negative behavior affecting their employees,” he says.
Of course, distance in the workplace is a trade-off—it creates cooler relationships and makes it harder to manage and collaborate. Van Houwelingen agrees that too much space can be a bad thing, but he thinks that businesses should strike a balance between distance and closeness. “Distance is a very useful tool that can be used to stop negative behaviors from spreading through an organization,” he say. “It creates the freedom to make up your own mind.”