Needs-focused supervisors get employee ‘benefit of the doubt’

Like beauty, fairness is in the eye of the beholder.

In the workplace, whether or not we think a supervisor treated us fairly depends on a number of factors, including the motive, according to new research from the University of Notre Dame.

Employees rate the fairness of an interaction with an authority figure based on what researcher Cindy Muir (Zapata), associate professor of management at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, describes as criteria or rules of justice. These include relying on decision-making processes that give employees a voice and are consistent among employees, ethical and unbiased; treat team members with dignity, respect and decency; provide them with truthful explanations; and the allocation of benefits based on their contributions to the organization.

Muir is the lead author of the study “It’s Not Just What You Do, It’s Why You Do It: How Managerial Motivations Influence Employee Fairness Judgments,” forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“We have found that professionally motivated supervisors – or those who focus on the needs of their employees – are more likely to adhere to the rules of justice than those motivated by self-interest,” Muir said. “This means that employees can only care about motives to the extent that they have an impact on justice. However, employees also care about the motives of their superiors and rely on their impressions when they think about it. their fairness. Compared to superiors who are seen as interested, those who are seen to be motivated by prosocial considerations are seen as more just, even after taking into account their adherence to the best practices of traditional justice. justice is poor, employees are giving them the benefit of the doubt. “

In other words, if a typically prosocial supervisor has a day off and makes a misstep in fairness, employees are less likely to judge them as unfair.

“We talk about objective standards of justice as if it were something easy for supervisors to meet at all times and in all situations,” Muir said. “But supervisors are fallible human beings who, inadvertently or not, risk not being successful. They can make decisions without giving employees a voice, they can ignore or not explain their decisions, or they can s ‘engage in brief interactions. Our work shows that prosocial motives can help alleviate the typical inconveniences associated with these missteps. In one of our studies, the prosocial effect is so strong that it seems to override it. high justice. “

Muir, along with co-authors Elad Sherf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Joseph Liu of Florida Gulf Coast University, conducted five studies in which they interviewed people employed with and without direct reports and one study experimental work in which they manipulated the evaluations. the motivations of authority figures for justice as well as their adherence to best equity practices. Over 1,000 people participated in the six studies.

The team found that because employees rely on the supervisor’s motivations to determine how fairly they are treated, they tend to consider supervisor behavior and prosocial motivations together, so that as long as the supervisor is perceived to be motivated by prosocial motives, lower justice behavior does not weaken impacting fairness judgments as much as one might expect.

They expected to find a similar, but opposite, effect for supervisors whose justice efforts were motivated by self-interest, but the results were surprising.

“We assumed that self-interest, coupled with unfair behavior, would elicit a stronger response from employees, but it doesn’t,” Muir said. “People react negatively, but we assumed there would be more outrage, that employees might feel like things would never get better, but we find that the response is no different from what you expect self-interest or low justice separately.

“If we want people to feel treated fairly, we tend to focus on ensuring that our rules, policies and procedures meet objective standards or best practices that we know are considered fair,” Muir said. “Of course our work does not contradict this approach, but it suggests that focusing only on these kinds of objective criteria of justice misses an important element of what makes employees feel fairly treated.”

It can be easy to focus on objective behaviors and lose sight of the importance of the motives behind those behaviors. However, the researchers point out that because of the importance of motivators, while supervisors and their organizations care about employee perceptions of fairness, it is useful to ensure that supervisors’ motivations are prosocial and not interested.

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