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How Fair Procedures Build Trust

Learn what the perception of fair procedures consists of and how it relates to trust and top team performance.

 

So far in this blog series, we’ve talked about precursors to the trust behind top-performing teams—integrity, emotional intelligence, inclusive networks, and effective communication.  In this post, we’ll begin to explore the concept of trust and the role of fair procedures, or processes.

 

What’s a simple way to think about trust that’s easy to remember and apply?

 

Trust can be grouped into three categories: (1) process-based, (2) people-based, and (3) institutional-based.

 

When people believe processes are fair, they trust them.  When people believe other people have their best interests in mind and are competent and reliable, they trust them.  And when people believe an institution’s processes are fair and its’ leaders have their best interests in mind and are competent and reliable, they trust the institution.

 

Let’s explore the notion of process-based trust in more detail.

 

People attend to three things when forming judgments about the fairness of processes or procedures: (1) neutrality of the people in charge of the process, (2) trustworthiness of the decision-making process, and (3) their status in the group.

 

When people are perceived as making unbiased decisions based on facts, this contributes to the perception that decision-making procedures are fair.  In contrast, when people are perceived as making decisions based on opinions, then decision-making procedures are more likely to be perceived as unfair—particularly by individuals who end up receiving less relative to others.

 

A second element of procedural fairness is perception of the trustworthiness of the decision-making process.  Research has shown that leaders who allow people to have a voice and share in decision-making are perceived as ethical.  Further research has shown that when peoples’ perspectives are truly sought out and incorporated, decision-making processes are more likely to be perceived as fair—even if those who were given a voice did not directly influence the final decision.  In other words, if one’s voice influences a situation indirectly, it is often enough to lead someone to trust the decision-making process, all else being equal.

 

Let’s revisit the steps involved in effective communication that we talked about in the previous post and see how they relate to these two elements of fair procedures.  To recap, the first step in effective communication consists of awareness and authenticity (i.e., seeing things as they really are).  In other words, when it comes to decision-making, are the people involved seeing situations as they really are and basing decisions on facts (vs. opinions)?

 

Thus, the first step in effective communication relates to people-based trust.

 

The second step in effective communication entails open and honest discussion that respectfully seeks to understand everyone’s perspectives.  In other words, giving everyone a meaningful voice.

 

The third step in effective communication involves generation of goals and solutions that have the best interest of all (e.g., the team or organization) in mind.  Ideally this involves collective decision-making, but at a minimum it consists of finding a way to support all perspectives.  Of course, this assumes that people strove to see things through clear as well as wide lenses.

 

The last step in effective communication consists of bringing issues to closure (i.e., striving to reflect upon and assimilate issues objectively).  As discussed in post 5, when issues are brought to closure, energy becomes free to be invested in other things.  In this way, the process of effective communication can begin anew.

 

Thus, the second, third and last steps in effective communication relate to process-based trust.

 

Let’s turn our attention to the third element of perceived fairness of procedures—the notion of status.  Status is the prominence, respect and influence that individuals enjoy in the eyes of others.  What does this mean?

 

Prominence has to do with one’s relative importance, respect conveys a sense of the perceived worth of a person, and influence entails having an effect on the actions, behaviors, opinions, etc. of others.

 

Thus, (1) if others’ words and actions send a message that a person is relatively important, (2) if others’ words and actions send a message that a person is respected, and (3) if others allow an individual to have an influence on them, then the individual will perceive that he/she has a relatively high status in the eyes of others.  In contrast, an individual will perceive that he/she has a relatively low status in the eyes of others if (1) the words and actions of others send a message that the person is not relatively important, (2) the words and actions of others send a message that the person is not respected, and (3) others do not allow the individual to have an influence on them.

 

How does status relate to the perception of fair procedures?

 

All else being equal, people who perceive their status as relatively low in the eyes of others are more likely to perceive decision-making processes as unfair, and people who perceive their status as relatively high in the eyes of others are more likely to perceive decision-making processes as fair.

 

How do the three elements of perceived procedural fairness—perceived objectivity of decision-makers, trustworthiness of the decision-making process, and one’s perceived status—relate to team performance?

 

Emotions are produced by social exchanges and are critical to understanding how and when social exchanges promote or inhibit solidarity.  When decisions are perceived as based on facts, when one’s input is sought, and when one’s status in a group is relatively favorable, emotions are likely to be positive and decision-making procedures are likely to be perceived as fair.

 

When most members of a group believe that they are treated fairly, cooperation is more likely to be the norm.  In other words, people are more likely to help one another.  Research has shown that people are also more likely to help others when others help them.  In these ways, the perception of fair procedures increase cooperation, efficiency, and a sense of unity, which improve team and organizational performance.

 

Action item:

  • Think about a time that you perceived a decision was unfairly made
  • Were the decision-makers objective in their assessment of the situation?
  • Were people’s input sought?
  • Did the decision seem to be influenced more by opinion vs. facts?
  • Was the decision-making process transparent?
  • Did the decision increase or decrease cooperation and a sense of unity?

 

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