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Monday, April 26, 2021

Position stability, competence and warmth: Why leaders decide to enact procedural justice

By Michelle Xue Zheng, Sebastian Schuh, Marius van Dijke and David De Cremer

Procedural justice (i.e. the manner and extent to which a leader upholds the procedural rules of their workplace) has been widely examined for its beneficial impact on factors such as employee well-being and organisational climate. However, our understanding of exactly when and why leaders decide to enact procedural justice toward their employees is limited.

A recent study we have conducted addresses this research gap by examining how leaders will alter their level of enacted procedural justice in response to a combination of three factors: the stability of their leadership position, and their perceptions of the competence and warmth of their employees. In other words, we proposed a threat-based tripartite model of procedural justice enactment.

Our principal finding is that leaders who are in an unstable leadership position will enact more procedural justice against their employees, particularly those whom they perceive to be highly competent but low in warmth. Moreover, we found that a leader in an unstable leadership position is more likely to view a ‘competent but cold’ employee as a threat, and is consequently more likely to enact procedural justice against them, in order to help stabilise their own position.

Additionally, we found that this model of behaviour holds true whether the leader in question feels unstable in their position generally or they are experiencing a direct positional threat from a specific employee.

Our use of this threat-based tripartite model of procedural justice enactment is unique in that it expands the literature on justice and leadership in a variety of ways. Prior research has focused on how organisations can encourage their leaders’ use of procedural justice enactment by highlighting its value to employees in terms of enhancing job satisfaction and building up the trustworthiness and legitimacy of the leader.

In contrast, our study has highlighted how procedural justice enactment can also be facilitated by a leader’s own self-interest (in this case, through their decision to use it to shore up their own unstable leadership position). It also expands our understanding of how the behavioural consequences of self-serving leadership are not always necessarily negative, given how procedural justice is seemingly beneficial to followers.

This insight has important practical implications to any organisation looking to promote procedural justice enactment amongst its leaders. Acknowledging their leaders’ self-interests regarding the security of their position may prove useful in discussing viable strategies for how and when they enact procedural justice. Organisations can, for example, emphasise the benefits of procedural justice in making followers, especially threatening (i.e. high competence, low warmth) followers, perceive them as legitimate and fitting for their managerial position. This can encourage more timely and appropriate use of procedural justice, benefitting not only the leader in question but also the employees and organisation as a whole via the creation of a more even-handed, respectful and fair business climate.

This article refers to the study entitled, “Procedural justice enactment as an instrument of position protection: The three-way interaction between leaders’ power position stability, followers’ warmth, and followers’ competence,” featured in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour here.

Michelle Xue Zheng is an Assistant Professor of Management at CEIBS. For more on her teaching and research interests, please visit her faculty profile here. Sebastian Schuh is an Associate Professor of Management at CEIBS. For more on his teaching and research interests, please visit his faculty profile here. Marius van Dijke is a Professor of Behavioural Ethics at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University and Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University. David De Cremer is the Provost Chair and Professor in Management and Organisation at NUS Business School at the National University of Singapore.

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