The Role of Ethical Leadership in Building Influence: A Female Perspective

This week we’re doing something a little bit different, and we’re speaking with Dr. Juan Meng, the Associate Professor of Public Relations at the University of Georgia, and Dr. Marlene Neill, APR, Fellow PRSA, an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director at Baylor University. I asked them to share insights from a recent journal article they authored titled The Role of Ethical Leadership in Building Influence: Perspectives from Female Public Relations Professionals.


Would you please tell us more about this latest ethics study?

Juan Meng: This most recently published article on ethical leadership is authored based on a large research project that Marlene and I have worked on in the past three years. We had a book published out of that big project in 2021 – PR Women with Influence: Breaking Through the Ethical and Leadership Challenges. In our research that we have a specific section that we investigate what ethical leadership means to public relation professionals – with a specific focus on female professional women’s perspectives on different topics related to ethical and leadership challenges.


What are some of the key findings in the research?

Juan Meng: We found ethical leadership is so critical, especially for female professionals to consider their influence, building up their network and setting up their tone for ethical counseling within the organization. We found several key things. One of the key findings is that women indicated they are ready and well prepared to provide ethical counseling when there’s any issue or any potential risks faced by the organization in terms of ethical challenges or dilemmas.

We also found that female professional felt the top leaders’ ethical conduct could significantly impact followers’ confidence in providing ethical counseling. If the top leaders demonstrate a high-level ethical conduct, that will significantly help the followers improve their ethical decisions.

Marlene Neill: One of the interesting things that came out of our study is that difference between the top leader and the employees lower in the organization, when it came to evaluating the ethical leadership of the top communication leader in the organization. The top communicators evaluated themselves very highly, but the lower employee was in the organization, the lower they evaluated the ethical leadership of their top leader in public relations. You have this disconnect where they’re not having much contact with the most senior leaders and not observing that ethical behavior or beliefs.

That’s why it’s so important for public relations practitioners and leaders to model and speak and communicate regularly about ethics, because otherwise they’re not going to understand that ethics is important to the leader. Ethical leadership is critical. And that was one of the things that really came out of our study is the importance for them to deliberately communicate and demonstrate ethics in their day-to-day work.


It sounds like from what you both just said, a lot of the perception of ethics seems to come from the top but unless the senior management makes an effort to get down at all ranks of the company, it’s almost counteracting some of their ethical behaviors. People don’t know what the great things the executives are doing unless they’re there and exposed to it on a daily basis.

Marlene Neill: That’s correct. One of the issues that they ranked the top leaders low on was around disciplining employees who violate ethical standards. There are of course issues around confidentiality when it comes to that. But it’s important for leaders to communicate that they do take action, even if they can’t be specific regard to very specific employees, they still need to communicate that unethical behavior will not be tolerated.


Do you have any advice for managers in that situation? You are addressing unethical behavior, but you can’t say it due to HR concern. How can you effectively communicate that?

Juan Meng: One of the several possible ways that based on our research is it’s so critical to have conversation with employees to let them know their decision-making process. Of course, this will vary depending on the organization culture, policies, et cetera. One of several other ways followers could see and observe the top leaders’ ethical behavior is to do things in the right way that they can be observed. Walk your talk, and also make sure that you set up the right questions to ask what is the right thing to do when making decisions. When doing the evaluations, think about the results as well as think about the process about how to get results finished.

It’s a combination of different strategies, to be transparent and to be straightforward, and to always remind themselves about the code of ethics when making decision.


Circling back to what Marlene said about discussing ethics values with employees on of your tables shows that 65% of people agree their managers discuss business ethics or values, which means about one of the three managers don’t. What can we do to get more people talking about this?

Marlene Neill: A few years ago, I had a piece that I published related to employer branding, which is of course a very popular trend, but one of the things that came out of that study is that some organizations deliberately mention how decisions are tied to their core values and they regularly communicate about them. Some organizations even tie their core values to their annual review process and the awards that are given in their organizations. There are definitely things that you can do as an organization to bring attention to your core values. That includes talking about it in routine communication, reinforcing their actions and how they’re consistent with their values. Also make it part of the annual review process and their reward programs.

I love the awards program idea. That’s something that’s been a pet peeve of mine is I think a lot of the industry awards need to include an ethics section. What were the ethical decisions you grappled with? If you want to show people the importance of it, identifying ways for them to communicate it.

Juan Meng: I want to add on what Marlene has shared, which related to this study but also one step further. That is the integration of the self-reflection into both leaders and the followers, especially related to challenging ethical situations and dilemmas. It’s so critical to have the leadership at all levels, to have that self-reflection in terms how you arrive at this decision, what are those values and communication that drive you to get to this decision? What could I do differently if I had the chance to rethink that decision? Step back to reflect upon how you get there. It will significantly improve the thinking process and also will open the dialogue between the leaders and followers at all levels to share and to communicate.

I’ve had others say practicing the pause or taking the critical 10 seconds, but there seems to be more pressure to make decisions, now, now, now, there’s the tyranny of urgency. How do you recommend people train themselves to take a step back when they may be feeling that they have to respond immediately?

Juan Meng: That’s a great point. Especially now we are surrounded by all kinds of information and need to push to make decisions and need to push to take the action. This kind of self-reflection effort has to be done deliberately. Force yourself to pause. If the leader can set the example to take five minutes out of the week, if not the day, to just reflect on that, that will really set an example for the other members in the team to really think about something besides the results, besides the successful outcomes that we are chasing every day in business world.

Are specific groups of women facing more challenges than others?

Juan Meng: Minority women that we group together (I know there’s no perfect way to group so we include Asians, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other minority, really small percentage in our sample, but we have worked so hard to recruit them, to compare across the majority), the white group and the black African American group. We saw the discrepancies and the difference across these three groups in terms their evaluation about the ethical conduct of their top leaders. Some ethnicity group rated their leaders higher than other groups. In that we linked back to the very persistent situational barriers, different ethnic groups or women of color have faced as they work hard and trying to advance their leadership career or leadership goals down the road. So, these kinds of things are linked together, gender, race, and combined the both factors.

If an executive doesn’t feel comfortable to provide ethics counsel, what do you recommend they do to become more comfortable?

Marlene Neill: We definitely encourage them to complete some ethics training that can be provided through different sessions that are offered by PRSA. They have all kinds of webinars that you can participate in. Of course, the APR exam has made a difference for some folks when it comes to their level of preparedness to provide ethics counsel. Some organizations provide ethics training within the workplace. So, you can definitely pursue that on your own or see what your organization has available when it comes to ethics training.

Also, it’s really helpful to learn about the different techniques that you can use to raise ethical concerns. Referring back to our findings, we found some of the more common ways that the practitioners raised ethical concerns were engaging in dialogue with executives. So having a conversation to get a sense of where they’re coming from, using legitimacy appeal, which refers to referencing what’s right or lawful or the organization’s own core values, and then the third one involved different types of research to find evidence to back up their recommendations.

What are some successful influence strategies and for building up influence if you don’t have it?

Juan Meng: Based on the study and our book, we found women use different combinations of strategies to build their influence. It could be combination about demonstrating expertise when the expected gender roles limited ability or limited people’s or expectation in certain leadership area or skills. And also, they trying to build up their influence circle within the organization and also beyond the organizations through the professional network to help them to establish that influence. They use different case studies and they use research. They use benchmark work to back up their suggestions, ideas, strategies. It’s through different strategies they can finding their way to let the voice speak by itself and let them to establish their influence.

What do you mean when we’re talking about influence?

Juan Meng: When we talk about influence, we are not just talking about those assigned or assigned titles or assigned the leadership role that you can identify by a business card or by the paperwork, we are more talking about that influence could drive change that could really put an impact, not just on that small team probably within the organization, even beyond the organization that really shaped that leadership culture within the organization.

Marlene Neill: And I think it’s interesting too, when you have the senior executives that we interviewed in for the qualitative portion of this study, when we had them talk about what influence meant, it was not just simply having a seat at the table, but it was having a voice that people listened to and respected, and then being able to actually make a change through their advice and counsel. It wasn’t just about having that seat at the table, but actually having people listen to your advice and take your advice.

Were there any racial differences you identified when you were evaluating the meaning of influence?

Juan Meng: Yes. Very consistent racial differences across all topics that we investigated. It definitely shows much, much greater efforts are needed to really help women of color and minorities to have a strong support to continue building their influence. They definitely see they are expected to put more work to be able to demonstrate their expertise, if expertise is one way to express influence. They absolutely express the need they have to put extra efforts into negotiating to get the assignments that could help them take a charge of the action instead of taking care of the problem. There’s a more proactive way versus the reactive way that they are looking for to build up influence. And this is particularly important for women of color or minorities group or those underrepresented groups within communication to really look for more improvement and advancement down the road.

That was one of the things that jumped out at me. There was definitely a half point on your scale gap in some of the areas like performing actions or being seen as a trusted advisor between white women and women of color. Is there anything thing I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight about the research?

Juan Meng: We also looked for some new opportunities to develop ethical training. We found that digital content related ethical training is so needed in the field since we are all surrounded by all kinds of technology and all kind of information on the internet. Professionals also get confused about how do we manage those ethical challenges associated with that new way of delivering content through internet, through social media, through any other creative digital channels. So that will become a new need and a much urgent need down the road, and very soon I would say, to provide a more ethical guidance and ethical trainings for professionals, especially young professionals.

Marlene Neill: Additionally, one of the positive findings from the study was the confidence women have in feeling prepared to provide ethics counsel. Previous research found issues in that area, especially around young professionals. The interesting thing about that confidence is that the literature tells us that that’s has to do with self-efficacy. Having confidence in your abilities is required before someone has the courage to actually raise ethical concerns. A previous study that I did, found one of the things that they felt was lacking in our profession was that moral courage.


Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
Follow Me
Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *