Leadership, Justice and the Importance of Voice

Key Takeaways

  • Employees’ perceptions of justice or fairness can affect both individual and organizational levels of outcomes.
  • Justice perceptions involve one’s perceptions of the fairness of the organizational processes, how outcomes are distributed and the quality of interpersonal treatment employees receive.
  • As some individuals will feel that certain outcomes are unfair, leaders are encouraged to devote more attention to procedural justice.
  • Encouraging employees to voice their opinions and suggestions is not only beneficial to certain organizational processes, but this can also improve employees’ overall perceptions of justice — even though the outcomes remain unchanged.
  • To create voice in one’s organization, the leader should not only make sure the employees are heard, but he/she should also respond with actions or at least sincere acknowledgement.

Since it has been a topic of philosophical debates and the legal process for millenniums, the term justice often carries the connotation of equality, moral rightness and fairness. In the field of organizational science, justice has also been widely studied in the past few decades, focusing on employees’ perceptions of justice in the workplace.

A well-accepted finding is that perceptions of justice or fairness matter a great deal — when people think their organizations and the individuals who lead them treat employees fairly, they perform their jobs better, are happier in their work, work more effectively as team members and do more to help their colleagues at work (Korsgaard, Schweiger, & Sapienza, 1995; Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson, Porter, Ng, 2001).

According to research, it is clear there are multiple components of justice perceptions at work:

  • Procedural justice is one’s perception on the fairness of the processes through which decisions have been made.
  • Distributive justice pertains to whether or not results are appropriate/fair/justified — given the amount of input one gave.
  • Interactional justice, on the other hand, refers to the quality of the interpersonal treatment employees receive when procedures are implemented or when decisions are made (Bies & Moag, 1986; Niehoff & Moorman, 1993; Colquitt et al., 2001).

Each form of justice perception uniquely affects work attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Colquitt, et al.., 2001).

Perhaps because certain decisions are bound to seem unfair to some individuals, leaders are encouraged to devote more attention to procedural justice. While anyone can behave in a just or unjust manner, leaders naturally have a special obligation here — for both principled and the aforementioned effectiveness reasons — to provide and promote a fair organizational culture (e.g., Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010; Zhang, Lepine, Buckman, & Wei, 2014).

So how might leaders go about doing that? There are four pillars of procedural justice (Thibaut & Walker, 1975; Bies & Shapiro, 1988; Colquitt, et al., 2001):

  • be fair in the processes they use to make decisions
  • be transparent in their actions
  • provide opportunity for voice
  • be impartial in decision making.

Each of these is worthy of its own post; today we focus on voice.

Voice is the formal expression of ideas, opinions, suggestions, or alternative approaches within or outside of the organization. This is where employees express their voices with the intent to change or improve the current state or process of the organization (Bashshur & Oc, 2015).

So voice is a good thing.

Across all levels within the organization, the opportunities to express voice are related to improved individual justice perceptions, better job attitudes, along with higher levels of helpful behaviors toward both the organization and the coworkers, better individual/unit/organizational performance, better relationships, better decisions, more innovation and lower levels of turnover (Bashshur & Oc, 2015).

Other studies (e.g., Hildreth, Moore, & Blader, 2014) indicate that even when the way outcomes are distributed remains unchanged, simply having a voice can lead to higher perceptions of distributional justice. Thus, not only does having voice lead employees to perceive the nature of decision making in the work environment more favorably, it also causes them to more readily accept the decisions (whether favorable or unfavorable) they receive.

Indeed, procedural justice in general, and voice in particular, especially matter when the ultimate outcome is unfavorable (low distributive justice) (Patient & Scarlicki, 2010).

Who are the people most affected by (having or not having) voice? Well, it turns out to be those who most identify with the organization (Collins & Mossholder, 2017; Platow, Huo, Lim, Tapper, & Tyler, 2015). The benefits of voice are also not simply confined to the individuals being granted voice. A recent study found that the expression of voice (by others) leads those with power to make less self-interested decisions (Oc, Bashshur, & Moore, 2019).

However, whether or not employees feel worthwhile and safe to voice depends on the behavior of one’s immediate supervisor (Morrison, 2011). So how do leaders go about creating voice in their organizations?

For voice to have a positive effect, at least one of two conditions must be present (Bashshur & Oc, 2015). First, employees must believe that leaders have acted based on their expression of voice. It is not hard for people to see through empty “listening tours” when nothing is done based on what they’ve communicated. Most employees quickly learn to answer the question: Is this leader prepared to act based on what I just communicated, or will nothing really happen?

When employees think that their managers are trying to deceive them by pretending to be interested in their points of views, giving employees voice can lead to negative results, such as conflicts within the group (Jehn & Terwel, 2012).

It is true that sometimes clear action isn’t possible. An organization may already be committed to a particular strategy, for example, or what the employee is voicing simply isn’t actionable. This is where the second condition is vital: In a situation where action isn’t possible, individuals must at least feel that leadership really listened to their opinion. There are some key ways this can be done, including:

  • repeating back your understanding of what the employee just said (very often we haven’t really addressed the question of whether we really heard what the employee said or wrote)
  • expressing empathy for what was communicated (one can empathize without necessarily agreeing)
  • telling the employee why action isn’t possible but communicating openness for the future
  • welcoming the employee to exercise voice in the future.

Many factors may inhibit voice within the organization.

Individuals with lower perceived power in organizations are less likely to speak up (Morrison, 2011). This means, without active promotion, many committed employees who strongly identify with an organization and contribute to its culture do not feel “safe” to speak up (Islam & Zyphur, 2005), making it especially important that the leader encourages voice.

Alex, the second author’s friend and a salesperson for Frito Lay, once relayed a story with the former CEO of Pepsico, Indra Nooyi:

One day, after analyzing growth potential for a store, Alex came up with an idea to increase impulse sales while minimizing store square footage. He felt so strongly about the idea that he emailed the then-CEO of Pepsico, Indra Nooyi. To his surprise, Nooyi tasked the now-president of Frito Lay, Steven Williams, to inquire more about the idea. He reached out to Alex, personally, the very next day.

Steven not only applauded Alex’s creativity, but he also asked him to elaborate more on his ideas. After more discussion, Steven tasked Anthony Kyles, the now-vice president of sales and strategy for PepsiCo, to travel to Ohio and meet with Alex. On the date of the meeting, Alex’s wife went into labor with their second child and the meeting was postponed. Unfortunately, pursuit of the idea was sidelined and never explored again.

Alex still feels honored and respected by the experience. He never thought the CEO of this multi-national corporation would carve out time from her busy schedule to read an email from a regional salesman and act on it.

Ever since, Alex initiated more voice to higher-ups and has been an exemplary salesman for the organization.

Voice is not a cure-all that magically takes away all ills with an organization’s climate. Its effectiveness depends on it being taken earnestly and represents a practical approach to leadership that is not hard to implement.

Ask yourself an honest question, and ask it of your leadership team as well: Does our organization have an understood process where employees have voice, and do employees feel that process is taken seriously?



Bashshur, M. R., & Oc, B. (2015). When voice matters: A multilevel review of the impact of voice in organizations. Journal of Management, 41, 1530-1554.

Bies, R. J., & Moag, J. F. (1986). Interactional justice: Communication criteria of fairness. In R. J. Lewicki, B. H. Sheppard, & M. H. Bazerman (Eds.), Research on negotiations in organizations (Vol. 1, pp. 43-55). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Collins, B. J., & Mossholder, K. W. (2017). Fairness means more to some than others: Interactional fairness, job embeddedness, and discretionary work behaviors. Journal of Management43, 293-318.

Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C. O., & Ng, K. Y. (2001). Justice at the millennium: a meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of applied psychology, 86, 425-445.

Islam, G., & Zyphur, M. J. (2005). Power, Voice, and Hierarchy: Exploring the Antecedents of Speaking Up in Groups. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice9, 93-103.

Jehn, K.A., & Terwel, B.W. (2012). When employees stop talking and start fighting: The detrimental effects of pseudo voice in organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 105, 221-230.

Korsgaard, M. A., Schweiger, D. M., & Sapienza, H. J. (1995). Building commitment, attachment, and trust in strategic decision-making teams: The role of procedural justice. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 60-84.

Morrison, E. W. (2011). Employee Voice Behavior: Integration and Directions for Future Research. Academy of Management Annals, 5, 373–412.

Niehoff, B. P., & Moorman, R. H. (1993). Justice as a mediator of the relationship between methods of monitoring and organizational citizenship behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 36, 527-556.

Oc, B., Bashshur, M. R., & Moore, C. in press. Speaking truth to power: The effect of candid feedback on how individuals with power allocate resources. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Platow, M. J., Huo, Y. J., Lim, L., Tapper, H., & Tyler, T. R. (2015). Social identification predicts desires and expectations for voice. Social Justice Research28, 526-549.

Walumbwa, F. O., Hartnell, C. A., & Oke, A. (2010). Servant leadership, procedural justice climate, service climate, employee attitudes, and organizational citizenship behavior: a cross-level investigation. Journal of applied psychology, 95, 517-529.

Zhang, Y., LePine, J. A., Buckman, B. R., & Wei, F. (2014). It's not fair… or is it? The role of justice and leadership in explaining work stressor–job performance relationships. Academy of Management Journal, 57, 675-697.

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February 16, 2020 at 3:11 am

I like such topics.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.