"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Being fair may take a toll

March 30, 2014
Courtesy of Michigan State University
and World Science staff

Bosses who are fair make their work­ers hap­pi­er and their com­pa­nies more pro­duc­tive, but in the end may be burn­ing them­selves out, a study finds.

Mich­i­gan State Uni­vers­ity re­search­er Rus­sell E. John­son and col­leagues found the act of care­fully mon­i­tor­ing the fair­ness of work­place de­ci­sions wears down su­per­vi­sors men­tally and emo­tion­al­ly.

“Struc­tured, rule-bound fair­ness, known as pro­ce­du­ral jus­tice, is a dou­ble-edged sword for man­agers,” said John­son, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment. “While ben­e­fi­cial for their em­ploy­ees and the or­gan­iz­a­tion, it’s an es­pe­cially drain­ing ac­ti­vity for man­agers. In fact, we found it had neg­a­tive ef­fects for man­agers that spilled over to the next work­day.”

For the stu­dy, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ap­plied Psy­chol­o­gy, the re­search­ers sur­veyed 82 bosses twice a day for a few weeks. Those who re­ported men­tal fa­tigue from situa­t­ions in­volv­ing pro­ce­du­ral fair­ness were found to be less co­op­er­a­tive and so­cially en­gag­ing with oth­er work­ers the next day.

“Man­agers who are men­tally fa­tigued are more prone to mak­ing mis­takes and it is more dif­fi­cult for them to con­trol de­vi­ant or counterpro­duc­tive im­puls­es,” John­son said. “Sev­eral stud­ies have even found that men­tally fa­tigued em­ploy­ees are more likely to steal and cheat.”

John­son said pro­ce­du­ral jus­tice is men­tally tir­ing be­cause it re­quires man­agers to con­form to par­tic­u­lar fair­ness rules, such as sup­press­ing per­son­al bi­ases, be­ing con­sist­ent over time and across sub­or­di­nates, and al­low­ing sub­or­di­nates to voice their con­cerns.

Em­ploy­ees may be con­cerned about not hav­ing per­son­al in­put in­to a de­ci­sion, skep­ti­cal about wheth­er ac­cu­rate in­forma­t­ion was used to make de­ci­sions or re­sent­ful over not re­ceiv­ing the same con­sid­era­t­ion as anoth­er more fa­vored em­ploy­ee, he added. “Essen­tially man­agers have to run around mak­ing sure their sub­or­di­nates’ per­cep­tions re­main pos­i­tive, wheth­er the threat to the at­mos­phere of the work­place is real or imag­ined.”

Fair man­agers can’t realistic­ally avoid some burn­out, he said. They just need to cre­ate situa­t­ions in which they’re bet­ter pre­pared to cope. His tips for man­agers in­clude get­ting enough sleep, tak­ing short men­tal breaks dur­ing the work­day, stick­ing to a healthy di­et and de­tach­ing from work com­pletely when out­side of the of­fice.

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Bosses who are fair make their workers happier and their companies more productive, but in the end may be burning themselves out, a study finds. Michigan State University researcher Russell E. Johnson and colleagues found the act of carefully monitoring the fairness of workplace decisions wears down supervisors mentally and emotionally. “Structured, rule-bound fairness, known as procedural justice, is a double-edged sword for managers,” said Johnson, assistant professor of management. “While beneficial for their employees and the organization, it’s an especially draining activity for managers. In fact, we found it had negative effects for managers that spilled over to the next workday.” For the study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers surveyed 82 bosses twice a day for a few weeks. Those who reported mental fatigue from situations involving procedural fairness were found to be less cooperative and socially engaging with other workers the next day. “Managers who are mentally fatigued are more prone to making mistakes and it is more difficult for them to control deviant or counterproductive impulses,” Johnson said. “Several studies have even found that mentally fatigued employees are more likely to steal and cheat.” Johnson said procedural justice is mentally tiring because it requires managers to conform to particular fairness rules, such as suppressing personal biases, being consistent over time and across subordinates, and allowing subordinates to voice their concerns. Employees may be concerned about not having personal input into a decision, skeptical about whether accurate information was used to make decisions or resentful over not receiving the same consideration as another more favored employee, he added. “Essentially managers have to run around making sure their subordinates’ perceptions remain positive, whether the threat to the atmosphere of the workplace is real or imagined.” Fair managers can’t realistically avoid some burnout, he said. They just need to create situations in which they’re better prepared to cope. His tips for managers include getting enough sleep, taking short mental breaks during the workday, sticking to a healthy diet and detaching from work completely when outside of the office.