Organisational justice mechanisms: one year on

10th February 2023

Authors: Schalk Visser and Caren Brenda Scheepers, Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, Johannesburg, South Africa

It is critical to build trust during times of extreme uncertainty, as experienced during COVID-19.  Employee perceptions of trust and justice are determined by the attributes and behaviours demonstrated by their leaders in organisations.

The manner in which leaders implement procedures should therefore be truthful and justified, called organisational justice mechanisms. South Africa, like most other countries, experienced stringent lockdown periods because of the pandemic, during which many organisations, including the three involved in this study, had to shift to remote working conditions. The ability to build trust is even more vital in the pandemic-affected business context, in which more and more teams function in virtual environments.

Our findings have real world application in terms of the impact of trust on these remote working conditions. We think that especially in situations where direct supervision over employees’ work is not possible, the necessity for trust is amplified. Our study showed the importance of the relationship skills and clear communication of leadership especially when there is a crisis. Leaders must clearly communicate their expectations around tasks.

One of the significant shifts in business during the COVID-19 pandemic was the concept of working from home. At the time, it was necessary to protect team members and slow the spread of the virus. During this period, it demonstrated that teams could work remotely, deliver on key outcomes, and gain a better work-life balance.

What has been seen post the peak of the pandemic is that some organisations continued with the practice of working from home, and others decided to bring all team members back to the office. Reasons cited by leaders to bring back team members included, amongst others, (i) team members do not work as effectively when they work from home, (ii) post the pandemic, we need all hands on deck (in the office) to get the business moving again, etcetera. We guess all of these can be seen as valid reasons from a leadership perspective; however, team members perceived this differently. Some thought they were not trusted to work independently and were therefore forced to head back to the office.

What we’ve seen is that if leaders communicate clearly in such circumstances as to the reasons why they believe it is better for the organisation that team members return to the office, rather than issuing a blanket instruction to return to the office. Team members tend to rally around those leaders and buy into the idea of working from the office again. Without saying, leaders should be truthful when explaining the reasons for changing ways of work, and in doing so, they engender trust in the leader-follower dyad. It is therefore clear that procedures and formal processes on their own are insufficient to support employees, especially during a time of extreme uncertainty.

A future study could look at how different organisations approached the ways of work adjustments post the pandemic and how that affected trust between leaders and followers.

In summary, in times of crises, such as with COVID-19, leaders must clearly communicate what is expected of their employees, by focusing on task orientation. Strong trust relationships will then develop between leaders and their followers.

Read their article: Organisational justice mechanisms’ mediating leadership style, cognition- and affect-based trust during COVID-19 in South Africa

About the authors

Schalk Visser is the Chief Technology Officer of a Mobile Network Operator called Cell C of around 800 employees and he has more than 200 employees in his division. He experienced the impact of trust first-hand in his own professional life. Through the research towards this article, he realised that the communication around why tasks are necessary and the clear communication around expectations of employees is crucial. He applied these learning points in his own career.

Prof Caren Brenda Scheepers is a supervisor of several studies relating to trust in the work environment and found that trust is like a lubricant which enables effective work relationships. She also highlights the speed of trust and how teams can hit the ground running even across continents. She co-authored a paper on a cross-continental project that she was part of and where trust enabled smooth transition from a face-to-face programme to an online programme. The speed with which this transition could be made was remarkable and therefore Prof Scheepers would like to conduct more research on how trust makes the difference for these international collaboration initiatives. The paper she refers to is:

Worley, C. G., Loftis, S., Scheepers, C. B., Nichols, H., & Parcells, C. (2022). Building trust through action learning in an uncertain transorganizational context. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 58(4), 716-751.

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