In my previous job as a member of the West Point faculty, I had the responsibility of selecting a few cadets (of the 130 in the organization) for specific leadership positions each semester. This gave those selected cadets a focused opportunity to practice their leadership in a safe and supportive environment, while striving to improve the company they led. Of course, I could not pick every cadet for important roles over the semesters available.
But after a few semesters of managing these decisions, one of my soon-to-graduate cadets offered candid feedback during a one-on-one meeting with me. He said that many in the organization viewed me as a “puppet master,” selecting the cadets I personally preferred for these leadership positions, leaving the rest without opportunity to be considered.
Whoa. Definitely NOT my intent. I quickly learned that I had an organizational justice issue on my hands and that cadets were not aware of the basis of my decisions. At least some viewed our company and my decision-making process as unfair, which stymied cohesion, commitment, and cadet satisfaction in the company.
While I addressed this issue rapidly, directly, and with all the grace and empathy I had, this moment remains as a personal leadership crucible for me. It taught me the importance of organizational justice and how leaders need to actively manage it before it causes issues like it did for me and my team.
I hope that this challenge I faced and the reflection I have given it since can cause you to pause and reflect on your own leadership attributes and style, and perhaps we can thank my cadet for bringing this issue to light as we seek to manage justly in our organizations.
So, What is Organizational Justice?
Organizational justice simply is the perception of fairness within the workplace. I emphasize perception because you, as the leader, can believe you are creating a just environment, but that does not matter if others across your team do not. Just like my scenario above, I believed I was managing the selection of cadet leadership positions well until someone informed me that at least some part of the company believed otherwise. And perceptions can come from anyone who has a stake in your organization, internally or externally. This can include employees, various levels of managers, a board, investors, customers, and so on. If some population that matters to your organization believes an aspect of it is unfair, it is a matter of organizational justice.
Research represents organizational justice as having three components:
- Distributive Justice: Who gets what
- Procedural: How those allocations are decided
- Interactional: How people are treated in the process
As these components allude to, it is not just the results that matter when creating the perception of justice; processes and how people are treated do, too. Let’s break down the three components in a little more depth.
Distributive Justice. Determining who gets what is based on one of three considerations:
- Equity: Receiving something based on one’s contribution. You did X so you deserve X, while they did Y so they receive Y.
- Equality: Equal distribution regardless of any other factors.
- Need: Distribution based on some measure of personal requirements, not performance.
There is no right option of the three to base decisions or allocation of resources off. But leaders need to be mindful of which one they are selecting, why, and ensure relevant stakeholders understand. Take one of the most common workplace resources, pay, as an example. What are the impacts to your organization if pay is based on equity (amount of contribution)? This is a means of rewarding and retaining high performing employees but does create space for biases to influence those decisions, like which projects an individual is assigned or who they know personally on the management team. However, if you allocated pay equally, you would be reducing the opportunity for bias to infiltrate your climate, although this comes at the cost of not rewarding high performing employees with a higher salary. There will always be tradeoffs based on the distributive option you select. Ensure distributive decisions are well thought through and communicated for shared understanding; consider the second and third order effects of your distributive decisions to ensure they do not have unexpected consequences on your climate.
Procedural Justice. The process of how allocations are decided should be consistent, suppress individual and collective biases in those decisions, and accurately meet the team’s and environment’s needs. They should also include representation of stakeholders and consider their input. Who needs to have a say in this decision or whose perspective should I consider to achieve a full understanding of the situation before I decide? Does there also need to be an ability to appeal the decision and is that process also fair, commonly known, and accessible to all relevant members? While the allocation of decisions is traditionally seen as being the manager’s sole prerogative, we should think about how making this process more transparent could improve our team. Not only will this increase buy in and understanding at echelon, it will also allow your employees to understand how and why management makes the allocation decisions they are charged with.
Interactional Justice. How people are treated through decisions heavily influences the perception of fairness as well. Even terminal decisions like firing an employee requires interactional justice; how they are treated in the process can influence their feelings on the decision, ultimately departing on good or not-so-good terms with the company (it also sends messages to everyone else on how they are valued by the organization). One’s access to information also influences interactional justice – do others have an advantage over me because they have access to organizational information that I don’t? That impacts a person’s perception of how they are treated and, as the adage goes, perception is reality, especially when someone feels they are being slighted or disadvantaged.
Does This Really Matter?
As you’ve read through the above definitions, I imagine some examples from your own career have popped up in your mind. You may also think that you and your organization have been successful to this point without paying any mind to organizational justice – and that’s fair. But what ceilings remain in place across your organization due to a lack of attention toward justice? These can be ceilings you’re not even aware of.
Organizational justice is really about motivation, and it ultimately impacts organizational effectiveness. A person’s perception of the justice within their workplace influences their motivation, which affects their level of performance, commitment to the team, and job satisfaction. Enduring issues of a lack of justice can lead to high turnover, mistrust, and even forming of sub-cultures within your organization. . Perception of justice can help to build trust and cohesion within the team, or it can fracture it. The level of justice within your organization touches on so many aspects of your daily work, processes, and interactions, that you cannot afford to ignore it.
Maybe Sarah, who is seen as a low-level performer on the team, is simply not motivated to bring her best self and best work every day due to her mistrust of “management” over justice perception issues. Improved communication and alterations to some workplace processes can potentially better shape her perceptions, improving her motivation, and possibly even leading her to become a high-performing member on the team.
Where Should I Be Worried About Creating Organizational Justice?
Justice has a role in every decision, process, and interaction between people. To prevent an issue like the one I experienced, leaders need to be actively mindful on how a current decision, process, or change is seen through the lens of organizational justice. How do different stakeholders view it? Is it best actioned based on equity, equality, or need? Why? And what are the consequences that we need to address by doing it that way? Justice touches everything we experience in the workplace, every day, and it’s our job as leaders to manage it.
Some common and important things to pay close attention to justice include:
- Hiring processes and selection
- Assessments that are given and how they are given
- Promotions – who, when, and why
- Pay, bonuses, and time off
- Diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives
- Punishments and consequences
- Allocation of tasks, projects, duties, responsibilities, personnel, power, money, and resources necessary to accomplish what is assigned
What Can I Do Now?
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by this topic and to begin seeing issues across your organization, which can at first be disappointing. But I find Maya Angeluo’s timeless quote relevant in this case, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Equipped with some basic understandings of organizational justice, we are now able to “do better” for our organization and, more importantly, for our people. A few things that we can do to enable the perception of fairness to saturate our organization include:
- Consider justice in your decisions: Whether it be an individual leader decision or a collective team decision, include organizational justice as one of your considerations. If acting as a team (like a board or management team), talk about how the decision’s fairness will be perceived by different populations.
- Communicate intent behind decisions: Helping others better understand the process used, considerations that influenced it, and the reason for a particular decision can do much to shape their perception of fairness behind it, even if they don’t agree with the decision you made. While there is a give-and-take between trust and transparency, leaders should default to being transparent with employees and relevant stakeholders. In the long run, communicating context and perspective as much as possible will help your people understand what is going on and make them feel more a part of the team.
- Get feedback: Don’t be afraid to ask your employees and stakeholders about their views on justice in the workplace. You can do this during “leadership by wandering around” opportunities, meetings, one-on-ones, or sensing sessions. Asking not only connects you to others’ realities across the organization, but it also helps them feel seen and heard. Ensure you communicate appropriately with your audience, though. Starting with a lecture to educate them about organizational justice may not be appropriate! Simply using terms like fairness, merit-based, and equality appropriately focuses the conversation.
In the end, this is all about being aware of how different stakeholders and demographics experience your workplace. Know that what might be seen as fair to upper and mid-level managers may not be to lower-level employees. What is considered fair for white employees may not be for minority ones. Or what’s fair for one gender may not be for the other. What are the impacts, the tradeoffs, and the consequences here – and what will be the best decision for our organization in our current situation? How do we make sure we appropriately motivate our team to excel, without creating an environment that is unjust or unfair?
A Comment About Social Justice
Organizational culture is a subset of our social culture. What happens in our society and communities will inherently impact the perception of justice in our workplace. Organizational justice is connected to social justice.
The role of demographics influences the dynamics in the workplace, especially race and gender, within the US; these are important identities within our society. Leaders must be cognizant of the larger social environment, how it impacts their people being able to show up in the workplace, and address it directly with candor, respect, and empathy. This may require leaders to take a formal stance on relevant, timely social matters. But at the very least, leaders must thoughtfully attend to these matters in the workplace with their people. This can require difficult conversations, alterations in organizational systems, and even restructuring of how routine business is done.
But fairly and empathetically attending to the greater social environment that your organization operates in will help your people to show up better, allow them to bring their whole selves to the workplace, and feel like they belong to something they believe in.
Our Just Organizations
I’m happy to share that following the experience with my Cadet, I was able to encourage him to become one of the selected leaders (the operations officer) in the following semester so he could have a stake in the growth of our organization. It was a fantastic partnership where I was able to watch him improve those around him – including me.
But it is important remember that this idea of organizational justice is not a mere convenience, perk, or nice-to-have in our workplaces. It is necessary to build a culture of perceived fairness among everyone in the team, which is essential to enable trust, belonging, inclusion, and ultimately commitment across the team.
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