Multiplying Insult Times Injury

Fairness is a good business practice, but there are some surprising aspects to it that managers should be prepared to handle, explains Joel Brockner in his latest book.

October 31, 2011 | Q&A
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What did you hope to achieve with this book?

I take a close look at the interaction between process fairness and outcome fairness in organizations. Say a company has big changes it would like to roll out, and some of the changes could mean tough decisions like cutting staff or relocating operations to another city. Process fairness requires offering employees a role in the decision-making process, giving them good information, providing advance notice of changes on the table with clear communication, and showing courtesy and respect along the way. We’ve known for some time that poor process fairness combined with bad outcomes produces unhappy, unproductive workplaces. 

What we learned is that the effects of neglecting fair process are even worse than you might expect. The subtitle of the book, Multiplying Insult Times Injury, speaks to that. The technical term is an interaction effect, which is the negative experience people have when they feel like they get a bad outcome accompanied by a bad process: injured by the outcome and then insulted by how it was done. The common expression, “adding insult to injury,” underestimates how aggrieved people feel under those circumstances. Multiplication is a more accurate description.

What do managers need to understand about this interaction effect?

The major implication for managers is that when they must make decisions that yield unfavorable outcomes for their staff, they should bend over backwards to use process fairness. If you have to choose, choose the high-quality, fair process way. Handling the process well or fairly reduces the negative effect that the unfavorable outcome will have on employees’ commitment, productivity, and morale. Handling the process poorly puts the recipients in a multiplying insult times injury situation.

Unlike the financial costs of giving everyone the outcomes they want, the financial costs of doing the process in a fair, high-quality way are usually not prohibitive, although it does require hard work and psychological availability: communicating with people, treating them with dignity and respect, and being available for questions. Sometimes if you are doling out an unfavorable outcome, the temptation for decision makers is to want to turn away and make themselves inaccessible and unavailable.

You also write about another, trickier process/outcome interaction effect that managers need to anticipate.

Yes. Sometimes when the process is handled well, the outcome is more consequential, especially for how people feel about themselves. When people experience a good outcome with a high-quality or fair process, they feel really, really good about themselves, in part because they are more likely to believe they deserved the good outcome; they got it “fair and square.”

The bad news is that a lousy outcome with a fair process can sometimes actually make people feel worse about themselves than if they were to get the same bad outcome with an unfair process. When getting a bad outcome with a fair process people may feel like they have no one to blame but themselves for the lousy outcome; whereas a bad outcome without a fair process can be blamed on the lousy process, not on oneself.

What can managers do in the aftermath of a bad outcome?


Now, if a poor outcome has more to do with individuals’ own poor performance, and they suffer self-esteem loss as a result, they may have to live with that. But if the manager feels like the loss of self-esteem following a bad outcome is an unintended negative byproduct that they would prefer people to not experience, then they need to do something to help employees deal with their loss of self-esteem. For example, give them opportunities to reaffirm themselves. Have them head a task force or take part in a corporate volunteer program. Give them an opportunity to demonstrate their competence. In other research I’ve done with colleagues we’ve found that self-affirming experiences help people to feel better about themselves, and just as importantly, make them glad to be a member of the organization.

What do we still not know about process fairness?

We are just starting to explore under what conditions managers will be more or less likely to show fair process. We know it is consequential, so under what conditions are managers more or less likely to behave fairly?

Here’s something provocative we’re finding: it depends on the trustworthiness of your subordinates. But, it’s not merely how much you view your employees as trustworthy — it depends on the basis of trustworthiness that we are talking about. There’s benevolence trustworthiness, in which managers trust their staff, because they believe that the staff has their managers’ best interests at heart, and therefore can be depended on to further the managers’ goals. We are finding that subordinates who are viewed as benevolently trustworthy are treated with greater process fairness by their managers.

Another basis of trustworthiness is subordinates’ integrity, which refers to managers’ believing that their subordinates have the personal values and attributes that lead managers to trust them. There’s a subtle difference between integrity-trustworthiness and benevolence-trustworthiness. Integrity-trustworthiness has everything to do with who the employee is and has little to do with the relationship between the manager and his/her direct reports (which is at the heart of benevolence-trustworthiness). Here’s the interesting finding: high-integrity employees receive less procedural fairness from their managers.

In other words, those with lower integrity-trustworthiness get much more process fairness. Why? Control. Being fair requires time, effort, and attention, and managers are less inclined to spend time on people who they know will run themselves. It’s the loose cannons that managers can’t trust — particularly the loose cannons who also are competent, who could really do damage — that they treat with high procedural fairness, to keep them in line. We know that it relates to control because the managers who measure higher on the need for control are more likely to behave this way. That is really counterintuitive — and it’s a signal to managers to be vigilant about the possibility that they might be biting the hands of those they trust (by showing less procedural fairness to employees with high integrity-trustworthiness), and risk alienating them.

The last part of my book is about practical applications. There is, for example, some reason to believe that the way senior managers communicate to lower-level managers can motivate the lower-level managers, in turn, to face the difficulty of delivering unfavorable outcomes to their subordinates with high process fairness. Senior managers should show they considered options carefully and that they, too, share the negative apprehension about having to mete out bad outcomes to their staff members.

You’ve written elsewhere about the business case for fair process. Are firms responding to that?

There are two data points suggesting we have a long way to go: the first is managers thinking they are being more fair than those on the receiving end believe. One of the 34 items on a survey I developed and use in my Columbia Executive Education programs includes the statement: “In times of change I make an effort to treat people with dignity and respect.” Managers consistently overrate themselves on this relative to how others experience them. It suggests there is some grade inflation going on — managers are legends in their own mind, so to speak. They may intend to treat people with fairness, but reality suggests otherwise.

The second data point is that there is a lot of research by others on the effects of having managers take part in process-fairness training programs. Can it be done? Yes. Does it have many positive effects? Yes. Employees whose managers go through a process-fairness training program are considerably more committed to the organization. The implication is that when managers treat employees with high fairness, the employees give more back to the organization.

One of the most provocative recent findings on the effects of procedural fairness training programs is that employees whose managers went through such a training program were less stressed. They actually slept better at night relative to those whose managers had not gone through the same program. And the time commitment needed to complete the program is not extensive: it consists of eight weekly sessions for a couple of hours.

So the good news is that managers are educable. The challenge is to get managers to use process fairness more than they do when left to their own devices.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.

Joel Brockner

Within the broader field of organizational behavior, Professor Brockner is well known for his work in several areas, including the effects of organizational downsizing on the productivity and morale of the "survivors," the management of organizational change, organizational justice, self processes in organizations and managerial judgment and decision making. He teaches the MBA elective course Managerial Decision Making, the Ph.D. course...

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Joel Brockner

"A contemporary look at organizational justice: Multiplying insult times injury"


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