By Russell Johnson

Managers who carefully monitor the fairness of workplace decisions make their employees happier and, ultimately, their companies more productive. But they may be wearing down their own emotional and mental resilience, according to new research by a Michigan State University business management professor.

“Structured, rule-bound fairness, known as procedural justice, is a double-edged sword for managers,” says Russell E. Johnson, assistant professor of management. “While it is beneficial for subordinates, procedural justice is an especially draining activity for managers. In fact, we found it had negative effects for managers that spilled over to the next work day.”

In a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Johnson and his colleagues Christopher Barnes, University of Washington, and Klodiana Lanaj, University of Florida – both former MSU doctoral students – found that managers who reported mental fatigue from situations involving procedural fairness were less cooperative and pro-social with other workers the next day.

“The reason why procedural justice is mentally fatiguing,” Johnson says, “is 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, for example.

“Whenever people carefully regulate their behavior around rules, it is much more mentally depleting than when behavior is autonomous and not constrained by rules.”

According to Johnson, procedural fairness also requires that supervisors be sensitive to all of the possible ways that subordinates might interpret a particular process as being unfair. For example, employees may be concerned about not having personal input into the decision, skeptical about whether accurate information was used to make decisions, or resentful over not receiving the same consideration as another, more favored employee.

“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. Dealing with all of this uncertainty and ambiguity is depleting,” he says.

Unfortunately when managers are mentally fatigued, it is more difficult for them to be engaged at work (see Johnson’s study, “Nighttime Smartphone use zaps workers’ energy”).

“They are more prone to making mistakes, and it is more difficult to control deviant or counterproductive impulses,” he says. “Several studies have even found that mentally fatigued employees are more likely to steal and cheat.”

So what does this mean for managers? Since it is a managers’ responsibility to act in procedurally fair ways, Johnson says, managers cannot realistically avoid some burnout. They just need to create situations in which they are better prepared to cope with the fatigue and overcome it.

He notes that getting sufficient sleep, taking short mental breaks during the workday, adhering to a healthy diet and detaching from work completely when outside of the office (for example, not reading email or memos at home after 7 p.m.) can help people replenish their mental resources, leaving them recharged the next workday.

“These replenishing activities are especially important when managers can anticipate times when they will be knee-deep in issues of procedural fairness – for example, when making personnel decisions, such as evaluating performance, deciding who to hire or promote, or terminating one or more employees,” Johnson says.

On the bright side, he says, not all justice behaviors are depleting.

“We found that interactional fairness — which involves ensuring that interpersonal interactions with subordinates are characterized by respect, dignity and patience — actually lessens people’s fatigue and may even replenish their energy,” he says.

When social interactions with others are positive and enjoyable, says Johnson, it invigorates managers. Thus, by being courteous, patient or friendly with subordinates, managers can boost their energy levels and elevate their positive mood at work.

Interactional fairness also has beneficial consequences for subordinates, because it boosts their satisfaction, commitment and performance at work.

“Interactional fairness is a key ingredient for developing high quality relations with subordinates and earning their trust and respect — a win-win situation for both parties involved!” Johnson says.