Procedural Justice Rules

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Evidence-Based Lessons

I have worked with thousands of executives – from CEOs of Fortune 500s to mom & pop start-ups to managers just trying to move forward. One repeated ‘ah-ha’ moment I get from executives is when I discuss procedural justice (i.e., the fairness associated with the decision-making process). Procedural justice is nothing new. It has been around for decades and is almost to the point of fact in social sciences (a rarity for us). The research literature is pretty darn clear: procedural justice is VERY important and there are some rules that help us maintain fairness. Yet, most executives have never heard of procedural justice and the ones that claim to know something about it confuse it with legal justice.

One particular instance stands out when I was talking to my friend, Fred Cleveland. Fred is a highly accomplished individual: a former Blue Angel and Captain in the US Navy, COO of American Eagle Airlines, EVP of WestJet Airlines, obtained a PhD late in life, and is now enjoying the beaches of Florida. During Fred's PhD journey, I mentioned procedural justice and the associated rules … Fred stopped me mid-sentence and asked ‘What, there are rules that govern fairness’? Uh, yea … where have you been Fred, get your head out of the clouds fly-boy. How the heck did he not know about this?

I had just fallen into the knowing-doing gap. There is a big gap between what academics & researchers know and what practitioners do (and vice-versa). This is one of the reasons I helped create the world’s first PhD for Executives program (https://business.okstate.edu/phdexec/). There are rules associated with procedural justice and I falsely assumed everyone knows them because I know them (cool, but odd phenomenon called false consensus). Yep, once again I was wrong.

I recently conducted a workshop with a major Oil & Gas Company in Houston, TX on Leadership Involvement. An EVP asked me a really good question – ‘if you are highly involved with your team, you value each person on your team, your team respects you as a leader & person, and you are following high involvement principles - how can you deliver bad news and not damage your relationship with your team?’ I responded, “simple, just follow the 6 procedural justice rules”. Crickets … blank stares… deer-in-headlights... I should have seen it coming. I just fell into the knowing-doing gap again.

Dang it!

Procedural Justice is important. Again, I incorrectly assumed everyone else knew this. These rules are critical for managing fairness, so I am going to highlight them here for all to see:

So, if you have worked really hard to develop trust, fairness, respect, etc… in your team – how do you deliver a potentially bad message or perhaps deliver a really bad outcome? First and best step - apply these rules! This is not a 100% fool proof formula here – I do not want to give you that perception. People will still be upset with a bad outcome, like not receiving a promotion or raise – I know I would. Yet, by following these rules, the process used to arrive at the decision is viewed as being fair. That can greatly reduce the negative effects from a bad outcome. Fairness in decision-making and allocation of outcomes goes a long, long way. It can help build trust and respect leading to increased performance. Following these rules will help maintain trust and respect as well.

One more thing note - these rules are not equally weighted by all people. Some put more weight on certain rules as opposed to other rules. The best way to understand such differential weighting? Get to know your team members ‘between their ears’. Not some superficial attempt – a real genuine attempt to get to know someone. One great approach to that – follow High Involvement Leadership Principles.