How People React to the Fairness of Decisions: Trust Makes a Difference - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #583

How People React to the Fairness of Decisions: Trust Makes a Difference

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.
Main Image
Main Image


Perceived fairness, whether of the outcome or procedural fairness, impacts on how people react to decisions. New research shows that the level of trust in decision makers sets expectations that significantly influence this interaction of outcome and procedural fairness.


People react differently to decisions based on what they perceive was the fairness of the outcome as well as the fairness of the process — and whether or not they trusted the decision makers in the first place.

For example, if people trust a manager, they are more likely to see both the outcome and the process of his or her decision as being fair. In their minds, the ultimate decision is consistent with their expectations. This consistency effect occurs in a negative situation as well: If people don’t trust a decision maker, and they see both the outcome and the process as being unfair, they will react minimally to the decision — it was, after all, consistent with their expectations of the untrusted decision maker.

However, if people believe a trusted decision maker has engaged in outcome and procedural unfairness, they will have a significant negative reaction to the ultimate decision. (The reaction will be less extreme if the decision was based on only outcome unfairness or only procedural unfairness; it the combination of both outcome and procedural unfairness that draws the sharp reaction.)

If, on the other hand, people realize that a mistrusted decision maker has proceeded with outcome and procedural fairness, they will have a significant positive reaction to the ultimate decision.

Three studies confirm this three-way interaction among outcome fairness, procedural fairness and trust.  The first study was a survey of 153 management/officer training participants working for a giant UK shipping company using validated measures for outcome fairness, procedural fairness and trust. The second study was larger, surveying 363 participants of a U.S. volunteer online research panel, more than half of them women.

In both surveys, the reaction to the decision was gauged in terms of organizational commitment — a positive reaction leading to increased commitment, a negative reaction leading to decreased commitment. When expectations were met (outcome and procedural unfairness from a mistrusted manager, or outcome and procedural fairness from a trusted manager), the level of organizational commitment changed little. Organizational commitment plunged, however, in reaction to outcome and procedural unfairness from a trusted decision maker. The reverse was also true: organizational commitment skyrocketed in reaction to outcome and procedural fairness from a mistrusted decision maker.

Study 1 also showed that people with a relatively short tenure in their position were more impacted by the dynamics described above than people who had been in their position longer.

One of the shortcomings of the first two studies was that while they connected the three variables, they did not clarify the sequence. The assumption was that trust led to higher expectations. However, to address any internal validity questions, the researchers conducted a third study that specifically manipulated the various factors, including deliberately establishing trust before the procedural and outcome fairness was known.

In this study, 247 volunteers for online research panel read a vignette in which they play the role of someone applying for a good job. Different vignettes were used to manipulate the different variables, such as whether the decision makers in an organization were trustworthy. The reaction to the interaction among outcome fairness, procedural fairness and trust would be gauged by organizational attractiveness (rather than organizational commitment, since the participants were not yet employees).

Study 3 replicated the results of studies 1 and 2 (although outcome favourability — what people achieve from the decision — replaces outcome fairness). In addition, study 3 revealed the mediator role of trust by measuring trust after as well as before the outcome and procedural fairness steps. Thus study 3 showed how disappointed participants lost their trust in the once-trusted manager, while happily surprised participants gained a significant amount of trust in a once-distrusted manager.


This research emphasizes the role that trust plays and how trust alters expectations, perceptions and reactions. Specifically, mistrusted executives may not be aware of the vicious circle in which they are spinning, and in which their decisions are expected to be negative and more quickly perceived as negative.

The research shows, however, that there is a way out, thanks to the overly positive response to a mistrusted decision maker who surprises with outcome fairness or favourability and procedural fairness. The reverse is also true: trusted decision-makers who stumble with outcome and procedural unfairness can suddenly find themselves in the vicious circle. Trusted managers should thus be cautious not to let an unfair decision significantly alter their relationships with their subordinates.



Trust in Decision-Making Authorities Dictates the Form of the Interactive Relationship Between Outcome Fairness and Procedural Fairness. Matthias Seifert, Joel Brockner, Emily C. Bianchi & Henry Moon. Personality and Social Psychology (January 2015). 

Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.


Idea conceived

January 10, 2015

Idea posted

Feb 2016
challenge block
Can't find the Idea you are after?
Then 'Challenge Us' to source it.


For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.

Use our Ideas to:

  • Catalyse conversations with mentors, mentees, peers and colleagues.
  • Keep program participants engaged with leadership thinking when they return to their workplace.
  • Create a common language amongst your colleagues on leadership and management practice
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest thought-leadership from the world’s leading business schools.
  • Drill-down on the original research or even contact the researchers directly

Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization.