Understanding Threats to Leader Trustworthiness: Why It’s Better to Be Called “Incompetent” than “Immoral”
Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders, Oxford University Press 2012

In this book chapter, Professors Kimberley Elsbach and Steven Currall use research on both spontaneous trait inferences (i.e., perceptions of individual characteristics based on the mere observation of behavior) and motivated person-perception (i.e., perceptions of others that are influenced by perceiver needs and emotions) to develop a model explaining the differing effects of incompetent vs. immoral acts on leader trustworthiness.

This model suggests that the initial labeling of leader actions as “immoral” triggers different cognitive processes in observers than does the labeling of these actions as “incompetent”. The authors illustrate these differences through case illustrations of two relatively successful leaders who found their trustworthiness threatened; one by actions that were labeled as immoral, and one by actions that were labeled as incompetent.