On my recent travels from Victoria Falls to Dar es Salaam, we covered more than 2 900 kilometres. The whole trip reminded me of the phrase ‘the journey is the reward’. The people we met, the scenery and the wildlife were all remarkable. Despite having spent many hours on an overland truck, I felt enriched when I got to Dar es Salaam, and, although I was excited about our arrival, I had a strong sense that the trip itself had been the actual reward. Back at work in Cape Town, I realised that when my colleague Stan reminds us of the need to follow fair and inclusive processes, it feels like one of these kinds of journeys. We will arrive at a decision but the path we take to get there will be as much of a reward.
During our monthly management meetings at the non-governmental organisation (NGO) where I am head of communications and strategy, my colleagues and I often have to take difficult decisions about operational and human resource issues, as well as policies and procedures. Decision-making can be a difficult task because we see our team of 30-plus employees as a critical asset, and staff satisfaction is a major concern.
In my experience, processes that focus less on outcomes, and more on ensuring that everyone involved has an opportunity to participate, play a major role in keeping staff happy and productive. The very first decision we as the management team often have to take is about what process we will follow in getting to a final outcome. Our team has gotten used to the idea that very few issues can be resolved immediately. Instead, after thorough discussion, issues are taken to relevant stakeholders in the organisation for consultation.
In their article, ‘Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy’, Kim and Mauborgne state that employees will support a management decision, even if they do not fully agree, as long as they believe that a fair process was followed in reaching the decision. ‘Outcomes matter, but no more than the fairness of the processes that produces them,’ say Kim and Mauborgne.
Much research confirms that fair processes (sometimes referred to as procedural justice) tend to produce more satisfied and contented workforces (see, for example, Cremer et al., 2014). In addition, if applied consistently, fair processes build a foundation for trust between staff, allow for participation, can be tools of empowerment, and almost always encourage wider ownership of decisions. Thus, beyond helping to ensure that individual staff are happier and more committed to their work, fair processes add to the overall health of an organisation and contribute positively to staff performance.
Kim et al. suggest that three principles should underpin each decision or change process, namely: engagement, explanation and clarity around expectations. First, decision-makers should determine who is affected by a particular decision to ensure that the right people are engaged, included or represented. Second, they should decide how best to involve these stakeholders and explain the process to them. A timeline and communication plan about how and when different steps will occur and be shared adds transparency and gives stakeholders a clear sense of what to expect. Consistency is another element that plays a central role in managing expectations and perceptions of fairness and procedural justice. Organisations that consistently value fair processes, and use similar decision-making processes each time, tend to be perceived as fair and inclusive (Wu et al., 2008).
The following example showcases a fair decision-making process. After 12 years of fixed office hours, staff at the NGO where I work asked if we could introduce flexible office hours. The management team was divided over the matter. Some were concerned about how to check on the performance of staff who would start early or stay late. Finding time for meetings was another concern. Staff argued that they would be more productive if they could choose a starting time that would allow them to meet their family responsibilities more effectively.
The management team decided to ask our human-resources consultant to draft a flexi-time policy that took all these concerns into account. The management team debated the draft at their next meeting and then circulated the document with minor amendments to the rest of the staff. Besides sending it to everyone, the director explained where the document had come from, the consultation process to follow and that the board of directors has the final say in the matter at the next board meeting. Staff had the opportunity to submit comments during two further rounds of consultation after which the director presented the policy to the board of directors and suggested running a three-month trial. The board accepted, and the trial was a success. By the time it was presented to the board, the draft policy was quite comprehensive, incorporating various scenarios and ensuring business continuity at all times. After the trial period, no further changes had to be made to the document, and only a few practical implementation issues needed to be addressed.
Including staff in the process allowed for the development of a comprehensive policy that both increased staff satisfaction and the overall productivity of the organisation. Admittedly, few processes run as smoothly as in this example. Time pressures often preclude lengthy consultations, or the issues to be decided on are more complex and require even longer consultation processes. Such consultations can become delicate, especially if they generate opposition from one or other grouping in an organisation, but creative solutions often emerge if everyone remains committed to following fair processes.
But if fair processes are so beneficial why do so many organisations struggle to apply these processes in decision-making?
There are various reasons. First, the management team needs to be aware of the benefits, preferably from their own experience. However, I would argue the main issue is time. Consistently following fair and consultative processes takes more time and effort. Managers at NGOs are often thinly stretched by having to be content specialists and carry management responsibilities at the same time. The sheer volume of work can be overwhelming at times, and leave little room for reflection about how best to implement internal processes.
Another explanation for not following processes is the desire to hold on to power. Some managers feel threatened by openness, transparency and consultations. They associate inclusive processes with giving up their power, or think that being a manager means that they should somehow be all-knowing and never admit that they are uncertain about anything. One solution to this is for management teams to appoint different champions within the team for certain processes, or to create dashboards or other tools to keep track of processes. This can help to lift the sole responsibility of processes implementation off the managers’ shoulders, while making decision-making more transparent.
Throughout this article I have allocated the primary responsibility for implementing fair processes to managers. Much of the literature falls short when it comes to the roles and responsibilities of employees in this regard. Demanding fair processes as employees is as important as being willing to participate in and be open to change processes. Fair processes require staff to provide feedback and input, participate in committees and comment on draft documents. Consistency and ongoing involvement by employees in processes are as important as ensuring that management offers the option of fair processes at all levels.
The benefits of fair processes far outweigh the challenges. So next time you have to be part of a decision-making process in your organisation, get on the bus and enjoy the journey towards an inclusive and fair decision.
- Carolin Gomulia is the senior programme head for communication and strategy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
Kim, W. Chan and Mauborgne, Renée. 2003. Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy. https://hbr.org/2003/01/fair-process-managing-in-the-knowledge-economy/
De Cremer, David; Van Houwelingen, Gijs; Cornelis, Ilse; Hoogervorst, Niek; Brebels, Lieven; Van Dijke, Marius and Van Hiel, Alain. 2014. Are Leaders Fair? On the Need to Understand Fairness Management in Organisations. http://www.europeanbusinessreview.com/?p=4940
Wu, Yaozhong; Loch, Christoph H. and Van der Heyden, Ludo. 2008. A Model of Fair Process and Its Limits. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/omg/pdf/vanderheyden1.pdf