Fundamentals of Leadership: Justice.

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Justice is probably not the first association when it comes to the fundamentals of leadership and organizations. Leaders should bring about vision, charisma and technical excellence and organizations should focus on markets and efficiency as the key elements of their existence. Also historically, great leaders rarely have the reputation as being “just” individuals. Their fame is regularly based on wars and conquests, endeavors expressing sheer power and national or personal interests, certainly not justice for those defeated. Even leaders who became famous as being “just” like Salomon or Napoleon, who in the evenings of his campaigns dictated with the “Napoleon Code” the foundation of French civil law, point more to the difficulties of establishing justice and its ambivalences, rather than its rule.
In addition, since its very beginning business economics is understood in Darwinian terms of fighting for survival in an environment characterized by merciless competition. Neither markets, competitors, or customers are inspired by fairness, but follow rules allowing only the survival of the fittest or serving self-interests. Economic organizations have to bow down to these conditions and in their structure do not express the ethical or moral principles of justice but bare economic necessities, allowing them to grow and prosper in a hostile environment. Finally, for a long time the majority of people in history did not expect justice in general or from economic organizations in particular. However, in the last century things changed rapidly. After his first election success Barrack Obama pointed out that he became president of a country in which just a few decades earlier his father, as a black man, still had to sit at the back of buses. Today in many parts of the world, justice also seems a luxury in the lives of people having to fight for their basic needs on a daily basis.
With this background it is also not surprising that research on justice in organizations only gained importance in the 1970s, and is still confined to the developed nations, but developing with enormous speed. For the organizations in these countries justice has become a central topic and a cornerstone of corporate culture. Justice refers to the question of how matters are, compared to how they ought to be. Simplified, the result should be that the organization is perceived as “fair”. Who wants to work in an organization which is not fair? In 2001, Jason A. Colquitt et al integrated over 180 studies in a meta-analysis and demonstrated that the perception of fairness has a tremendous impact on work attitudes, job satisfaction, commitment and trust.
If employees choose, companies perceived as “unfair” not only have to face a lower morale at work and more problematic interpersonal relationships but also a higher employee turnover in which the best often choose to go first, suggesting therefore that injustice can be expensive. In a study by Lind et al on downsizing, 66% of the respondents who regarded their layoff as unjust considered litigation. In the group which felt justly treated the rate was only 15%. If a pay cut is well explained with convincing arguments, turnover is significantly lower than if it is just announced.
To what extent a company is regarded as fair depends on three central dimensions of justice. Procedural justice refers to the processes within an organization, which should be consistent, free from bias, and considerate of everybody. Secondly, distributive justice should ensure that everybody gets a fair share of the output in relation to the input, and thirdly, interpersonal justice means that individuals are treated with respect and dignity and are appropriately informed.
These dimensions overlap and the distinction is in fact academic, but it is also helpful in pointing to the central role of procedural justice. If gains are allocated fairly, how employees are treated depends on the rules and procedures which an organization has developed for itself and which are exemplified by its leadership. Of course, in a big organization there will be variances in behavior and there are always situational factors to be considered, but the principles should be clear.
Traditionally, some Asian companies have been at the forefront of interpersonal justice at the work place. It is part of the more Confucian culture to see the social element as the crucial one and to strive for an equilibrium which is regarded as fair by all. The success of some Japanese companies in the 1970s and of Korean companies today, is more due to a loyal and committed workforce and its harmonious organization than it is to ground breaking innovations in product design or engineering.
Worldwide, military organizations like armies which put their employees at real risk, have for many decades been striving for principled and fair organization. It is evident that a leadership making life or death decisions needs special legitimacy and qualification. The rules under which units and individuals are put at risk must not be arbitrary. The high standards with regard to private relationships within armies have not much to do with prudishness but a lot to do with the dangers of preferential treatment and this is often overlooked. It is natural to keep a loved one out of harm’s way and promote those one likes. However, where orders have to be obeyed, close to unconditional trust in those giving them is required and there is no room for personal feelings or doubts in the qualification of those giving them.
Fortunately the decisions of most leaders are less dramatic and consequential, but also their leadership position is based on trust from all levels in the organization. Trust is a feeling, but as a meta-analysis by Dirks & Ferrin of 107 samples with over 20,000 subjects indicates, its major ingredient is the perception that the leader is committed to justice. The study shows that there can be no leadership without vision and direction, but it is the perception of justice which will decide over the quality of the interaction and performance.
How can justice be achieved? There are many approaches from a variety of philosophical backgrounds, but for organizations the pragmatic approach of US law philosopher John Rawls seems the most adequate. In his social justice approach, Rawls argues that inequalities must be minimized and opportunities maximized for all. Inequalities are unavoidable, but they must be of advantage for all and be connected to positions which are open to all. This sounds a little complicated, but in essence it means that everybody should have a fair chance in an organization and as far as differences between positions exist, they should be to every one’s advantage. Russell Cropanzano et al give an overview on recent fair approaches to classical problems in placement, payment and performance assessment. They demonstrate that justice is not an obstacle to organizational functionality but, on the contrary, can be helpful to find a form in which all members comprehend their role.
Justice can be a sober topic, to create and maintain it in the daily life of an organization requires efforts which may be difficult from an emotional perspective. It is an illusion anyway, but we want to see organizations as kind of individualistic enterprises. Not only is it that we buy mass products to express our individuality from industrial organizations, but also inside the organization we like to see and feel ourselves as individuals, not as interchangeable agents within a system. Justice puts this individualistic perspective into the background and focuses on the rules and procedures which should be applied to all. The central term is equality and not individuality. Not individualistic deliberations but impersonal procedures which should stand the tests of consensus, time and situational differentiation should decide the course of action.
The benefits of this perspective only become evident on second sight. Individualism is often also a source of sorrow and can lead to discriminatory or inadequate treatment, insufficient information, partiality or loose arguments and decisions. The “bad boss” is one of the most frequently named problems in nearly all companies. To insist on organizational justice requires not only organizations as a whole to aspire to higher standards but also for everybody within them. Only as long as individualism brings around an advantage is it regarded as a prized privilege, in all other cases individuals prefer to be treated with fairness, like everybody in a comparable situation.