When Should Leaders NOT Promote Interpersonal Justice?

Topic(s): leadership
Publication: Journal of Management (2012)
Article: When Leaders Fail to “Walk the Talk”: Supervisor Undermining and Perceptions of Leader Hypocrisy
Authors: R.L. Greenbaum, M.B. Mawritz, R.F. Piccolo
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Interpersonal justice means treating other people with dignity and respect. Usually, we would imagine that good leaders always promote interpersonal justice among their employees. However, research (Greenbaum, Mawritz, & Piccolo, 2012) uncovers one interesting scenario in which leaders may be better off toning down talk about interpersonal justice.

THE CASE OF LEADER HYPOCRISY

The research conducted two studies, one was a simulated scenario and one was a survey on actual leader behavior. They found that leaders who promote interpersonal justice among their employees could be causing harmful consequences for the organization in one specific situation. This occurred when leaders themselves did not act in accordance with the values of interpersonal justice, but instead engaged in undermining. The authors say that undermining means belittling employees, putting them down, or making them feel incompetent.

Undermining employees can lower their levels of organizational commitment, make them believe they are not capable, increase harmful workplace behavior, and cause personal health-related problems. But there is one more drawback of undermining employees. When leaders undermine their employees in practice, but preach the importance of impersonal justice, employees will rightfully view the leaders as hypocritical.

Employees try to make sense of the behavior of their leaders and predict how they will act in the future. This helps them feel a sense of control. When leaders appear to be hypocritical, employees will distance themselves from the leader or the situation. Indeed, the researchers found this in their studies.  When leaders professed interpersonal justice, but did not appear to practice it, employees had more intention to leave the organization. The researchers determined that this occurred because of the hypocrisy of the leaders and the employees’ need to distance themselves from it. Certainly, turnover is something all workplaces want to reduce, as it is both costly and disruptive to the organization.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

Modern organizations mostly understand the need to have their employees treat each other with interpersonal justice. However, this research suggests that corporate requirements for leaders to espouse interpersonal justice may backfire if the leaders do not practice this behavior themselves. It is vital that leaders only “talk the talk” when they can also “walk the walk.”

Additionally, the authors note other studies that demonstrate that leaders who preach values that are congruous to their own behavior have employees with lower stress, lower absenteeism, and fewer health complaints. Although key organizational values are an important part of creating a successful workplace, it is crucial that these values are not merely espoused, but practiced diligently.

 

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Greenbaum, R.L., Mawritz, M.B., & Piccolo, R.F. (2012). When Leaders Fail to “Walk the Talk”: Supervisor Undermining and Perceptions of Leader Hypocrisy. Journal of Management, 41(3), 929-956. doi: 10.1177/0149206312442386

 

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