Your motives matter more than actions (even on an off day)

Research suggests employees judge leaders less on what they do than why they do it.

by Stephen Jones

No matter the standards we hold ourselves to, everyone has an off day. In stressful situations a usually honest and patient manager might find themselves snapping at a colleague, or failing to communicate the reasons behind a certain decision. It’s easy to be hard on yourself at these times, but soon-to-be-published research offers some solace: employees judge managers less on their specific actions and more on their perceived motives.

Perceptions of how fair a supervisor is tend to be based on a number of behaviours, including their interpersonal relationships, level of truthfulness, consistency, accuracy and the extent to which they give employees a voice. With this in mind researchers from the University of Notre Dame wanted to understand how a supervisor’s perceived motivation impacted these ‘justice rules’. 

For the study, which is due to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, academics conducted six studies, with over 1,000 collective participants. In some, supervisors were asked to judge their own motives and justice behaviours against those of their employees. In another, participants were surveyed over a period of time. 

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