Commitment and feelings of fairness. Employees can be highly committed to their work, using their creativity and sense of initiative. Or they can hold back, sticking to the bare minimum and doing solely what is listed in their job description. This is rarely related to their personality: employees can save up their energy until Friday night and spend their weekend building their house, waking up early to work energetically with a big smile on their face. A host of studies in organizational behavior have shown that the difference between commitment and withdrawal depends above all on employees’ feelings as regards justice and injustice at work. These deep feelings spark strong emotions: anger and fear in the event of injustice, and a sense of well-being and security when they feel they are being treated fairly.
The four types of feelings of fairness. Studies have precisely shown the role justice and injustice play in the hearts and minds of working people along four related dimensions.
- First off, employees judge whether or not the symbolic and material rewards they receive (raises, bonuses, praise, the means to carry out their mission, etc.) are consistent with what they give to the company (their qualifications, personal investment, intelligence, talents, etc.). This is distributive justice, in other words the feeling that what they receive at work is fair.
- Next, employees judge whether or not the decision-making processes allow them to express themselves. Are they asked their opinion on how to most effectively adapt the way their department operates to a new organization that has been implemented? This involves feelings of procedural justice. Unlike the distributive dimension, justice here depends more on the way that things are done rather than on the result itself. Though the new missions in the department may be less satisfying, they will still be considered fair and acceptable if the ideas and critiques of the people involved have been taken into account.
- As well, people react to the way they are treated in human relationships, in particular by their managers. Do managers show them respect? Do they show empathy? While managers know it is best to be polite, in most cases they do not know that employees react with feelings of interpersonal justice. These feelings are often the strongest and can leave lasting scars. They can result in withdrawal as well as highly antagonistic behavior.
- Finally, work teams experience feelings of informational justice. They judge whether or not the information they are given – in other words, the content and deadline communicated to them – is fair. For example, employees working on a project that their managers know will be shelved in a month need to be given this information as soon as possible in order to adjust and bounce back. They will feel unfairly treated and will react badly if they are informed at the last minute.
From ENA to Thalès. Managing these feelings of justice and injustice helps bring about real improvements in relationships and commitment at work. I have, for example, run several training sessions and consulting missions in organizations sensitive to fairness such as Thalès and Botanic, as well as in the luxury sector. Concretely, discussion groups on fairness, new management practices or projects aimed at recognizing each employee’s contribution the company were set up. This helped to create a fair atmosphere and mutual trust leading to more initiatives and improved performance. As well, I have trained a number of managers at institutions such as EMLyon Business School, ENA and HEC Business School, as well as in the IESEG Executive MBA program. Some of the men and women I have trained have told me that they later implemented fairer management in their everyday work to great benefit.
The fair manager’s toolkit. More broadly, such initiatives help give managers a strong command of the four-step fair management behavioral toolkit:
- allow the people affected to give their views before making a decision
- decide on the rewards to be given to each person so they match their contributions
- announce the decision with benevolence, even – and especially – if it is unfavorable
- provide information at every step of the process in the sincerest, most transparent way possible
This toolkit is highly useful, particularly in increasingly common cases where resources are scarce and have to be shared: for instance, in ever-flatter organizations there are fewer promotions. The people applying for a position all know that only one of them will get the job. Thus, not everyone can be satisfied. It is better to try to maintain the motivation of all those who do not get the job by being fair and showing it.
First off, they must be given an interview to express their opinion on how well suited they are for the job (1. procedural justice). Next, the choice must be based on formal criteria so that the candidate whose skills are best suited is the one chosen for the job (2. distributive justice). The candidates who were turned down must then be given an appointment during which they receive constructive feedback on their candidacy (3. interpersonal justice). Finally, they must be given complete information at every step of the process, from the posting of the job offer to selection of the most suitable candidate (4. informational justice).
The effect of fair management. Fair management is powerful because it acknowledges the fact that motivation depends little on the concrete result of a decision (the realm of distributive justice) and greatly on the way in which it was made (procedural justice) and announced (interpersonal and informational justice).
I will accept being deemed wrong in a conflict with a co-worker if I have been allowed to truly express my point of view. I will accept the closing of our factory if the boss comes to see us in person to show us that he is aware of the impact it will have on us and discusses it with empathy. I will accept not getting my year-end bonus if beforehand I have been informed of the criteria for receiving it and then regularly been updated on how I am performing.
I will then feel at ease however favorable – or unfavorable – the turn of events and I will remain committed. Some of you are already naturally fair managers. For the others, the good news is that it comes with practice. Now it is your turn to start using fair management and enjoy all of its benefits.