Focusing on Fairness May Cause Manager Burnout

Managers who were accurate and consistent with their business decisions, and unbiased and fair to employees — known as procedural justice behaviors — experienced a greater depletion in energy, or burnout, according to study results published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. However, managers felt replenished through acts of interpersonal behaviors with employees.

Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson

“The topic of fairness at work or justice at work is a popular topic. It has always been from the perspective of recipients of fairness, so all the benefits to employees or subordinates when they are treated fairly, when processes are fair, when outcomes are fair and when treatment is fair and when people are treated fairly, good things happen. They are more motivated, performance is higher, they are more willing to give supervisors the benefit of the doubt when difficult decisions are made, like a mass layoff, etc. But no one has looked at the person responsible for being fair,” Russell Johnson, assistant professor of management in the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, told O&P Business News. “We did have the suspicion that, while some types of fairness, like being polite and showing respect to others, is probably relatively easy to do, other types of fairness, like making sure that procedures are fair, might be a little trickier.”

Energy depletion

Researchers studied 82 managerial employees who were enrolled in an executive-style weekend MBA program to examine the relationship of performing procedural justice and interpersonal justice behaviors with changes in participants’ regulatory resources. Data consisted of a one-time survey assessing participant demographics and personality traits as well as surveys that were administered in the morning and afternoon for 10 consecutive work days. Researchers also used the International Personality Item Pool to measure extroversion and neuroticism and controlled for daily sleep quantity and workload in all models, since they are respectively associated with replenishment and depletion of regulatory resources.

Overall, study results showed procedural justice behaviors increased mental fatigue among managers, while interpersonal justice behaviors restored mental energy. Regardless of whether the participants were extroverted or displayed neurotic tendencies, they still experienced a depletion in energy if they engaged in procedural justice behavior, according to study results. A side effect of feeling depleted is that managers were then less likely to perform voluntary helping behavior that contributes positively to organizational effectiveness, which is known as organizational citizenship behavior (OCB).

Energy restoration

Researchers found showing employees respect, dignity and generally being nice, known as interpersonal justice behaviors, replenished the energy of managers who scored high in areas of extroversion and neuroticism. Importantly, when managers felt replenished, they engaged in more OCB.

“[Interpersonal behaviors] elicit positive behaviors, positive emotions and positive interactions with others, which people find replenishing,” Johnson said. “Interpersonal behaviors were shown to have a reverse effect and helped combat the depletion managers were experiencing.”

Running a supplementary analyses to study any reverse relationships, researchers found burnout from the previous work day did not predict procedural justice behaviors or interpersonal justice behaviors for the next work day.

“Based on the findings, we would never say managers should avoid being fair to preserve themselves, but I think what this tells us is that managers have to prepare themselves and understand they might have to take additional steps to create a situation in which they can recover and deal with some of the negative consequences so that they can still be fair and yet not deal with some of the aftermath of doing so,” Johnson said.

Johnson pointed out previous studies that showed the detrimental effects of employee burnout.

“There are a lot of studies showing when people are exhausted or fatigued, it is hard for them to stay engaged in work and it is also easier for them to give into impulses, so [they] surf the web or shirk their duties. It has also been shown that employees who are fatigued or depleted are more likely to cheat and steal.”

How managers can cope

In future research, Johnson and colleagues want to find ways to help managers compensate and cope with mental fatigue and burnout. In addition to exploring the extent procedural fairness behaviors have on energy depletion, the researchers want to look at different interventions or methods that might be used to deal with depletion, such as the effects of a healthier diet and sufficient breaks during the work day.

“There are some interesting studies where researchers found just taking a 5-minute break in the morning or afternoon is actually a good way to reset the system and employees are more refreshed and invigorated when they re-engage with their work,” Johnson said. “That has more practical implications too. I think it provides some direction for people, especially when they know they are going to be going through times when procedural justice is daily, like the month or a couple of weeks of each year when they have to evaluate the performance of employees. Obviously, fairness becomes important there.” — by Casey Tingle

For more information:
Johnson RE. J Appl Psychol. 2014; doi:10.1037/a0035647.

Disclosures: Johnson has no relevant financial disclosures.

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