Managers… How Much Justice Is Enough?

Key points

  • Fairness in managerial behavior may motivate employees to ‘go the extra mile’ in their daily work.
  • If managers behave fairly, employees may feel higher trust, commitment, and better supported, and live up to their mutual obligations.
  • Justice pays off! Creating policies and practices based on justice rules can improve the working environment and enhance productivity.

Managers are knowledge workers, people who ‘think for a living’. They can get promoted to managerial positions because they excel at functional skills, contributing to the organization’s core mission above and beyond expectations. However, newly promoted managers carry the burden of becoming accountable for managing people well, while being pressured from the top to bring results and show they measure up to the new status. Soft skills become essential to support, supervise and motivate people to be great employees. But how does this behavior look from below? Is there any low-cost option for business leaders to improve productivity through managerial behavior?

In 2013, Jason Colquitt, along with Brent Scott, Jessica Rodell, David Long, Cindy Zapata, Donald Conlon and Michael Wesson, published a colossal meta-analysis pooling results from 413 scientific studies which investigated to what extent employee perceptions of justice in managerial behavior are associated with higher employee performance. The type of research studies included allows us to conclude if there is a positive relationship between perceptions of justice and performance.

Relevant for managers and organizations alike, this research offers insights also about what may explain the link between justice and performance.

Managerial justice: what for?

Justice reflects the quality of being morally right or justifiable. Subjectively, we define an act as just if most of us perceive it to be so. Behavioral scientists refer to justice as a multidimensional construct composed of four dimensions:

Now, is it worth making the effort to enhance perceptions of justice to improve performance? It seems so: a manager who behaves fairly can encourage employees to reciprocate with beneficial attitudes and behaviors.

The most notable finding of the research is about Organizational Citizenship Behavior, that is, when you notice that your employees help colleagues thinking through their issues, or simply behave altruistically. Employees may demonstrate high levels of citizenship behaviors when they are treated with respect, when clear and truthful explanations are conveyed for decisions, and when fair procedures are followed.

On the contrary, the results for Task Performance show that fairness in outcomes is most important. This means praise and rewards should reflect the contributions that people make. If your decisions are perceived as unfair, then your employees may be less willing to do their job well.

Finally, you cannot solely blame employees for misbehaving (also known as Counterproductive Work Behavior) because in the end you may get what you give. One important factor for employee misbehavior is mistreatment by the employer—through unjust treatment! Think about it, how many opportunities you might have during a working day to be clear, consistent, and fair with your employees?

Ultimately, as a business leader willing to build a successful organization you may consider what the researchers call practice mediators. Briefly, adhering to justice rules seems to translate into beneficial workplace behaviors such as task performance and organizational citizenship behavior because fair treatment from managers may deepen employees trust, commitment, sense of being supported, and the quality of work relationships. Instead, injustice seems to directly affect the extent to which employees engage in counterproductive work behavior.

Takeaways for your practice

Starting from the fact that ‘justice seems to make people feel good as much as injustice makes them feel bad’, living up to fair managerial behavior may be a cost-effective means to higher employees’ productivity. Still, justice is something that must be done, as well as being seen to be done. It must be observable by everybody. There’s a danger: if companies don’t make it observable, employees may think it doesn’t exist. That’s why measurement matters. Here we provide two main guidelines supported by the research:

  1. Business leaders need to be aware that managers’ behavior is the means by which employees judge the fairness of their company. How much they perceive events as fair is likely to wind up as a strong indicator of the justice of the company. Looking closer at your records of resignation letters and exit interviews, how much (in)justice is reported?
  2. Businesses are dynamic, they bring in new policies and practices that will guide and constrain the behavior of managers. Is there anyone explicitly deciding how consistently policies will be applied across units? Is anybody advocating to check for biases in the practices that run throughout the business? Newly promoted managers may be well intentioned to do good, but can easily end up being undermined by top-down decisions and lack of implementation planning.

More specifically, the research suggests a number of HR practices you can target for first-hand application:

  • Selection→ consider traits which predict that people will follow justice rules – such as emotional stability (Big 5 Personality Test) or empathywhen selecting new managers.
  • Training → provide behavioral training on justice principles–procedural, distributive, interpersonal and informational–to newly promoted managers. For instance, how do your managers ensure they speak fairly about individual contributions in team achievements or failures?
  • Performance Management → incorporate justice principles into performance appraisal systems, developmental feedback processes and on-the-job coaching. For example, appraise managers on how properly they communicate with employees, or how consistent they are at listening to their team members.
  • Employee Survey → supplement the survey with a  valid measure of justice that focuses on how employees experience managerial behavior related to specific practices. This will help you track which business-units are doing things right or could do better, and then help them improve their performance through individual coaching.
  • Run Experiments → test the findings for yourself. Take action to become knowledgeable about the effects of justice perceptions in developmental feedback (e.g., by means of a Rapid Evidence Assessment). Design and run a pilot study within your company to see if fair feedback leads to higher individual performance. Evaluate and learn–then you might consider extending the new practice to the whole company.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this summary. Due to the correlational nature of the findings, we found that it has a moderately high (80%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Colquitt, J. A., Scott, B. A., Rodell, J. B., … & Wesson, M. J. (2013). Justice at the Millennium, a decade later: A meta-analytic test of social exchange and affect-based perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 2, 199–236

You can find the original article here!

Colquitt, J. A., & Rodell, J. B. (2015). Measuring justice and fairness. In: Cropanzano, R. S. & Ambrose, M. L. (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Justice in the Workplace. Oxford University Press.

You can find a valid measure of justice adapted to managerial behaviour here (p. 191)!

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