Managers beware: Employee baggage on board

UGA study ties perceptions of workplace fairness to employee mood and outlook
Ph.D. candidate Edwyna Hill (center) with management professors Marie Mitchell and Fadel Matta.

Employees who feel they are treated fairly by their supervisors perform better at work, but new research finds perceptions of fairness are swayed by the mood and outlook employees bring to work.

“Managers and employees don’t always agree as to whether the manager’s behavior is appropriate,” said Edwyna Hill, a Ph.D. candidate in management at the University of Georgia and lead author on the study. “They may be looking at the same objective behavior, but they see it differently. We wanted to know, why is there this gap between the way managers and employees see managers’ behavior?”

Hill worked with Terry College of Business management professors Fadel Matta and Marie Mitchell to conduct a survey-based study to see whether mood and general outlook impacted how employees perceived their supervisor’s approach to equity in the workplace.

The team found that employees were more likely to rate their supervisor’s behavior as fair when they started the day in a good mood and had a generally optimistic outlook. That perception of fairness correlated with better task performance and more “citizenship behaviors” around the workplace.

By comparison, employees who started the day in a foul mood and came to work with a pessimistic outlook were more likely to perceive their supervisor’s actions as unfair. While this had little impact on task performance, it was correlated with “unproductive behavior,” which the authors described as anti-social behavior like gossip or being unfriendly to co-workers.

“Perceptions of justice inform employees’ work behavior,” Mitchell said. “Our findings suggest it might not matter what supervisors do because employees’ mood and sense of optimism and pessimism color how fair they perceive their supervisor is. And that directs how productive (or not) they are. Gearing attention to mood and how optimistic and pessimistic employees are seems of critical concern, then.”

Hill, Matta and Mitchell published their paper, “Seeing the Glass as Half Full or Empty: The Role of Affect Induced Optimistic and Pessimistic States on Justice Perceptions,” in the Academy of Management Journal in May.

“Our research is unique because, although practitioners and researchers alike suggest that people see how they are treated from their own vantage point, there is little research-based evidence to support this claim,” said Matta, who has written extensively on how employees react to perceived injustice in the workplace. “In our studies, we demonstrate that treatment from supervisors can truly be in the eye of the beholder — two employees can look at the exact same supervisor behavior, and see it as well as respond to it differently.”

Previous research has found that employees who feel that their supervisors are fair perform better, but this study is one of the first to tie those perceptions of fairness to mood and outlook.

So, what’s a good-intentioned manager to do?

“Well, managers should still be doing their very best to adhere to rules of justice in the office,” Hill said. “I would never want anyone to look at this and think, ‘All I have to do is make my employees happy, and I don’t have to worry about being fair to them.’”

But managers should be aware that even when they’re doing their best to adhere to the rules of justice, employees may perceive things differently. Take that perception gap into account.

“Mostly, they need to be mindful of the baggage that their employees are bringing to the office with them,” Hill said. That means packing emotional strength and empathy in their supervisor’s toolkit.

“Whether they got a great night’s sleep or burnt their toast that morning, by the time employees arrive at work, they’re already in a mood,” she said. “So, what managers can do is help maintain the good moods of employees who are already in a positive mood. And, for employees who may have had a rough start in the morning, try to make work a place where they can put some of that stress aside and feel more positively.”

Simple interventions like letting employees listen to music on their headphones or allowing time for positive social interaction can help improve moods.

“We all want to feel inspired, alert and enthusiastic, and this research shows that when you feel that way, it has positive outcomes even for the organization,” Hill said.