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The management price of fairness

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Earlier this year I posted about a new study exploring the small matter of hierarchy in the workplace, and specifically how employees perceived it.  One of the central themes of social business is that hierarchy is often a bad thing as it shackles and inhibits employees creativity and innovation.  Alas, the research found that quite often, people rather enjoy a good bit of hierarchy, with the one caveat being that the hierarchy needs to be fair and just.  So long as that is the case, all is fine.

Now, of course, being fair and just is far from easy.  As Victor Hugo famously wrote, “being good is easy, what is difficult is being just”.  A recent study highlights this point very aptly, underlining the emotional cost of being fair in our work lives.

The research found that making sure rules and procedures are abided by to provide a fair and just workplace comes at a significant mental cost for managers.  What’s more, the research suggests that this has the knock-on effect of reducing our willpower and self-control, which in turn can often lead to negative behaviours emerging in both ourselves and our team.

The road to procedural justice

So, fairness in the context of the research is largely procedural in form, and refers to things such as how employees perceive the organizational rules and policies in place in the workplace to ensure it is a fair and just kind of place.  The study found that the more time the manager spent applying these rules and procedures, the higher the mental price they would incur.

“Indeed, companies that encourage procedurally just behavior from their employees in an attempt to create positive work environments may inadvertently (and ironically) create a different set of problems owing to diminished self-control,” they wrote.

Not all justice is equal

Interestingly, some forms of procedural justice were found to impose a higher cost than others.  Interpersonal justice for instance was found to replenish our mental reserves.  This form of justice describes the way employees perceive fairness when rules are communicated to them.

This form of justice differs from its procedural peer in that it largely relies upon the kind of social rules and norms that we hopefully use and encounter every day.  Things like courtesy and respect.  These kind of behaviours tend to support positive social engagements, therefore they tend to have a positive impact on our energy levels.

Procedural justice however, such as perhaps suppressing personal bias when making decisions, exerted a significant mental strain on managers however.  Managers reported that the day after delivering this form of justice, they would often have a job focusing and concentrating on their work.

“In contrast to previous research focusing solely on the beneficial effects of justice, our results indicate that procedural justice behaviors—which entail navigating potentially complex issues in a manner that suppresses the potential biasing effects of self-interest and favoritism toward ingroup members—is draining, leaving employees with fewer available resources,” the paper says.

Not only did this prompt a drop in productivity by the manager, it would also diminish their personal positive behaviours.  The study showed that when the managers were mentally drained, they would go above and beyond significantly less than when fresh as a daisy.  So no more voicing appreciation or mentoring a colleague.

Of course, this is only one of the many ways in which we can suffer from mental exhaustion, and those other forms are just as important when tackling such an issue.  It does however reinforce some of the challenges we might face in producing the fair work environment employees seemingly crave.

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