Justice in teams represents a specific content area within the organizational justice literature that focuses on how fairness operates in collective contexts. The majority of the studies in the organizational justice literature examine how individuals form and react to fairness perceptions. For example, studies explore how individuals judge the fairness of decision outcomes, decision-making procedures, interpersonal treatment, and authority communication and how those judgments influence key attitudes and behaviors. Studies in the area of justice in teams acknowledge that those phenomena occur in collective contexts—that what happens to one employee may depend on (and influence) what happens to others.
The justice in teams literature acknowledges an important trend within organizations: the increased use of team-based structures. Recent estimates suggest that between 50% and 90% of individuals work in teams, defined as a collection of individuals who work together to complete some task, who share responsibility for collective goals or rewards, and who see themselves as a meaningful social entity. Research on justice in teams tends to focus on three types of research questions: (a) Do the results of individual-focused justice studies generalize to team members? (b) Does the justice experienced by one’s teammates have direct or interactive effects on one’s own reactions? and (c) Does the justice experienced by the team as a whole influence collective reactions at the team level of analysis?
Generalizing Results to Team Members
The first stream of research that was conducted in the justice in teams literature explored whether the results of studies in individual settings generalize to team members. Studies in individual settings have linked fair treatment by organizational authorities to beneficial attitudes (e.g., trust in one’s leader, commitment to the organization, satisfaction with one’s job) and beneficial behaviors (task and citizenship behaviors in support of the organization’s goals). Those same results have been demonstrated in studies on justice in teams. Some of those studies have taken place in the laboratory, with undergraduates placed into small teams (of three or four members) working on some task or simulation and reporting to an ad hoc leader. Other studies have taken place in the field with larger teams whose members work together for extended periods of time.
Those laboratory and field studies have also examined a subtly different question: Do members react to treatment by organizational authorities by altering attitudes and behaviors targeted to their teammates? On the one hand, those teammates are not responsible for any unfair treatment the member might have experienced. On the other hand, it may be difficult for members to avoid transferring negative emotions or feelings to teammate-directed reactions. In fact, research tends to show that such transference does occur, with members reacting to unfair treatment by becoming less attached to the team and engaging in less frequent helping of team members. This finding highlights the importance of justice in teams, as unfair treatment can hinder both authority and member-directed attitudes and behaviors.
Effects of Teammates’ Treatment on One’s Own Reactions
In addition to providing multiple targets for justice reactions, team settings provide multiple referents for judging fairness. In other words, team members can ask, “Was that decision event fair to me?” and “Was that decision event fair to my teammates?” The second stream of research described in this entry has explored whether teammates’ treatment has direct or interactive effects on a member’s own reactions. Direct effects of teammates’ treatment would suggest that vicarious justice can alter one’s own attitudes and behaviors, with members penalizing an authority for treating a teammate unfairly. Interactive effects of teammates’ treatment would suggest a sort of social comparison process, as members compare their own outcomes, procedural experiences, or interpersonal treatment with their teammates’ experiences when reacting to authorities or decision events.
As with the studies reviewed earlier in this discussion, the stream of research on the effects of teammates’ treatment has occurred in both the laboratory and the field. Laboratory studies have manipulated the treatment of an individual participant while also manipulating the treatment of one or more other participants. For example, a participant may be given input into laboratory decision-making procedures but have teammates who are not given that input (or vice versa). Sometimes these studies have included true teammates who are physically present alongside the participant, and sometimes the teammates are merely unseen, fictional others. In contrast, field studies have measured individuals’ own fairness perceptions while also gathering data on team-wide fairness levels. For example, an employee may be asked to rate the amount of input he or she has in decision making procedures while also rating the input given to the team as a whole. Regardless of these differences in method, both laboratory and field research have gathered data on two kinds of variables: own treatment and teammates’ treatment.
The studies in this stream of research have sometimes yielded significant incremental effects for teammates’ treatment, over and above own treatment, on a variety of attitudes and behaviors (e.g., leader evaluations, commitment, citizenship, performance). However, the effects of teammates’ treatment seem to be smaller than the effects of one’s own treatment and are more likely to be statistically significant in field research or in laboratory research that creates actual teams. In addition, studies have yielded significant interaction effects that suggest that members consider their teammates’ treatment when reacting to their own fairness experiences. In general, the pattern of this interaction is such that consistent treatment within the team is reacted to more favorably. For example, if a member is given input into a key decision, he or she will react more favorably when other members are given the same opportunity. This finding further highlights the importance of justice in teams, as fair treatment must be uniform within the team for members to react in the most favorable manner possible.
Justice at the Team Level of Analysis
Given that team members do consider the treatment received by teammates, it seems likely that justice experiences will become one of the more commonly discussed topics in a team setting. Moreover, as team members compare notes about their justice experiences, it follows that a shared consensus may emerge regarding how the team, as a whole, is treated. It is this shared consensus—termed justice climate—that is the subject of the third stream of research reviewed in this entry. The emergence of a justice climate can be explained by understanding the nature of a team’s social network. The more interdependent a team’s work, the stronger the ties that bind members together in their social network. Those strong ties facilitate the mutual exchange of information and interpretation needed to arrive at a shared consensus.
Research on justice climate has occurred exclusively in the field, given that a shared consensus is unlikely to develop in a short-term laboratory environment. Justice climate studies have occurred in a number of types of teams, ranging from automotive parts manufacturing teams to teams in bank branches to top management teams in international joint ventures. The emergence of a shared consensus regarding fair treatment is demonstrated statistically by showing high within-group agreement on survey measures of fairness. For example, each member may be asked how much input in decision making the team as a whole is given, with responses to that survey question compared across team members. Once a shared consensus has been verified, justice climate has been used to predict the attitudes and behaviors of the team as a whole. For example, fair justice climates have been associated with better team performance, less team absenteeism, increased team citizenship behaviors, and higher levels of team commitment.
Other studies on justice climate have occurred in units that are too large to technically be termed teams. For example, studies have examined justice climate within public service plants, hotel properties, and departments in a grocery store chain. Despite the large size and relatively low interdependence of these units, survey measures of fair treatment have still yielded relatively high within-group agreement. Moreover, justice climate has predicted organization-level measures of commitment, citizenship, turnover, and customer service behaviors. The research on justice climate again highlights the importance of justice in teams, as fair treatment can create a shared consensus regarding fairness levels that can influence the attitudes and behaviors of whole units, not just individual members.
Studies in the area of justice in teams have made a number of contributions to the larger literature on organizational justice. The studies have shown that the treatment experienced by an individual team member has implications for how that member reacts to his or her teammates. The studies have also shown that members take into account the fairness received by teammates when forming attitudinal and behavioral reactions. Finally, the studies have shown that a shared consensus can emerge regarding fairness levels that can affect the attitudes and behaviors of the team as a whole. These studies therefore reaffirm the importance of treating team members in a fair manner.
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- Colquitt, J. A., Zapata-Phelan, C. P., & Roberson, Q. M. (2005). Justice in teams: A review of fairness effects in collective contexts. In J. J. Martocchio (Ed.), Research in personnel and human resources management (Vol. 24, pp. 53-94). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
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- Roberson, Q., & Colquitt, J. A. (in press). Shared and con-figural justice: A social network model of justice in teams. Academy of Management Review.