5.3: Process-Based Theories

Learning Objectives

1. Explain how employees evaluate the fairness of reward distributions.
2. Describe the three types of fairness that affect employee attitudes and behaviors.
3. List the three questions individuals consider when deciding whether to put forth effort at work.
4. Describe how managers can use learning and reinforcement principles to motivate employees.

A separate stream of research views motivation as something more than action aimed at satisfying a need. Instead, process-based theories view motivation as a rational process. Individuals analyze their environment, develop thoughts and feelings, and react in certain ways. Process theories attempt to explain the thought processes of individuals who demonstrate motivated behavior. Under this category, we will review equity theory, expectancy theory, and reinforcement theory.

Equity Theory

Imagine that you are paid $10 an hour working as an office assistant. You have held this job for 6 months. You are very good at what you do, you come up with creative ways to make things easier around you, and you are a good colleague who is willing to help others. You stay late when necessary and are flexible if requested to change hours. Now imagine that you found out they are hiring another employee who is going to work with you, who will hold the same job title, and who will perform the same type of tasks. This particular person has more advanced computer skills, but it is unclear whether these will be used on the job. The starting pay for this person will be$14 an hour. How would you feel? Would you be as motivated as before, going above and beyond your duties? How would you describe what you would be feeling?

Figure 5.7

Equity is determined by comparing one’s input-outcome ratio with the input-outcome ratio of a referent. When the two ratios are equal, equity exists.

Source: Based on Adams, J. S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology: Vol. 2 (pp. 267–299). New York: Academic Press.

If your reaction to this scenario is along the lines of “this would be unfair,” your behavior may be explained using equity theory (Adams, 1965). According to this theory, individuals are motivated by a sense of fairness in their interactions. Moreover, our sense of fairness is a result of the social comparisons we make. Specifically, we compare our inputs and outcomes with other people’s inputs and outcomes. We perceive fairness if we believe that the input-to-outcome ratio we are bringing into the situation is similar to the input-to-outcome ratio of a comparison person, or a referent. Perceptions of inequity create tension within us and drive us to action that will reduce perceived inequity.

Inputs are the contributions people feel they are making to the environment. In the previous example, the person’s hard work; loyalty to the organization; amount of time with the organization; and level of education, training, and skills may have been relevant inputs. Outcomes are the perceived rewards someone can receive from the situation. For the hourly wage employee in our example, the $10 an hour pay rate was a core outcome. There may also be other, more peripheral outcomes, such as acknowledgment or preferential treatment from a manager. In the prior example, however, the person may reason as follows: I have been working here for 6 months. I am loyal, and I perform well (inputs). I am paid$10 an hour for this (outcomes). The new person does not have any experience here (referent’s inputs) but will be paid $14 an hour. This situation is unfair. We should emphasize that equity perceptions develop as a result of a subjective process. Different people may look at the same situation and perceive different levels of equity. For example, another person may look at the same scenario and decide that the situation is fair because the newcomer has computer skills and the company is paying extra for those skills. Who Is the Referent? The referent other may be a specific person as well as a category of people. Referents should be comparable to us—otherwise the comparison is not meaningful. It would be pointless for a student worker to compare himself to the CEO of the company, given the differences in the nature of inputs and outcomes. Instead, individuals may compare themselves to someone performing similar tasks within the same organization or, in the case of a CEO, a different organization. Reactions to Unfairness The theory outlines several potential reactions to perceived inequity. Oftentimes, the situation may be dealt with perceptually by altering our perceptions of our own or the referent’s inputs and outcomes. For example, we may justify the situation by downplaying our own inputs (I don’t really work very hard on this job), valuing our outcomes more highly (I am gaining valuable work experience, so the situation is not that bad), distorting the other person’s inputs (the new hire really is more competent than I am and deserves to be paid more), or distorting the other person’s outcomes (she gets$14 an hour but will have to work with a lousy manager, so the situation is not unfair). Another option would be to have the referent increase inputs. If the other person brings more to the situation, getting more out of the situation would be fair. If that person can be made to work harder or work on more complicated tasks, equity would be achieved. The person experiencing a perceived inequity may also reduce inputs or attempt to increase outcomes. If the lower paid person puts forth less effort, the perceived inequity would be reduced. Research shows that people who perceive inequity reduce their work performance or reduce the quality of their inputs (Carrell & Dittrich, 1978; Goodman & Friedman, 1971). Increasing one’s outcomes can be achieved through legitimate means such as negotiating a pay raise. At the same time, research shows that those feeling inequity sometimes resort to stealing to balance the scales (Greenberg, 1993). Other options include changing the comparison person (e.g., others doing similar work in different organizations are paid only minimum wage) and leaving the situation by quitting (Schmidt & Marwell, 1972). Sometimes it may be necessary to consider taking legal action as a potential outcome of perceived inequity. For example, if an employee finds out the main reason behind a pay gap is gender related, the person may react to the situation by taking legal action because sex discrimination in pay is illegal in the United States.

Table 5.1 Potential Responses to Inequity

Reactions to inequity Example
Distort perceptions Changing one’s thinking to believe that the referent actually is more skilled than previously thought
Increase referent’s inputs Encouraging the referent to work harder
Reduce own input Deliberately putting forth less effort at work. Reducing the quality of one’s work
Increase own outcomes Negotiating a raise for oneself or using unethical ways of increasing rewards such as stealing from the company
Change referent Comparing oneself to someone who is worse off
Leave the situation Quitting one’s job
Seek legal action Suing the company or filing a complaint if the unfairness in question is under legal protection

Source: Based on research findings reported in Carrell, M. R., & Dittrich, J. E. (1978). Equity theory: The recent literature, methodological considerations, and new directions. Academy of Management Review, 3, 202–210; Goodman, P. S., & Friedman, A. (1971). An examination of Adams’s theory of inequity. Administrative Science Quarterly, 16, 271–288; Greenberg, J. (1993). Stealing in the name of justice: Informational and interpersonal moderators of theft reactions to underpayment inequity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 54, 81–103; Schmidt, D. R., & Marwell, G. (1972). Withdrawal and reward reallocation as responses to inequity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 8, 207–211.

Overpayment Inequity

What would you do if you felt you were over-rewarded? In other words, how would you feel if you were the new employee in our student-worker scenario? Originally, equity theory proposed that over-rewarded individuals would experience guilt and would increase their effort to restore perceptions of equity. However, research does not provide support for this argument. Instead, it seems that individuals experience less distress as a result of being over-rewarded (Austin & Walster, 1974). It is not hard to imagine that individuals find perceptual ways to deal with a situation like this, such as believing they have more skills and bring more to the situation compared to the referent person. Therefore, research does not support equity theory’s predictions with respect to people who are overpaid (Evan & Simmons, 1969).

Individual Differences in Reactions to Inequity

So far, we have assumed that once people feel a situation is inequitable, they will be motivated to react. However, does inequity disturb everyone equally? Researchers have identified a personality trait that explains different reactions to inequity and named this trait as equity sensitivity (Huseman, Hatfield, & Miles, 1987). Equity-sensitive individuals expect to maintain equitable relationships, and they experience distress when they feel they are over-rewarded or under-rewarded. At the same time, there are some individuals who are benevolents, those who give without waiting to receive much in return, and entitleds, who expect to receive substantial compensation for relatively little input. Therefore, the theory is more useful in explaining the behavior of equity-sensitive individuals, and organizations will need to pay particular attention to how these individuals view their relationships.

Fairness Beyond Equity: Procedural and Interactional Justice

Equity theory looks at perceived fairness as a motivator. However, the way equity theory defines fairness is limited to fairness of rewards. Starting in the 1970s, research on workplace fairness began taking a broader view of justice. Equity theory deals with outcome fairness, and therefore it is considered to be a distributive justice theory. Distributive justice refers to the degree to which the outcomes received from the organization are perceived to be fair. Two other types of fairness have been identified: procedural justice and interactional justice.

Figure 5.8 Dimensions of Organizational Justice

Let’s assume that you just found out you are getting a promotion. Clearly, this is an exciting outcome and comes with a pay raise, increased responsibilities, and prestige. If you feel you deserve to be promoted, you would perceive high distributive justice (your getting the promotion is fair). However, you later found out upper management picked your name out of a hat! What would you feel? You might still like the outcome but feel that the decision-making process was unfair. If so, you are describing feelings of procedural justice. Procedural justice refers to the degree to which fair decision-making procedures are used to arrive at a decision. People do not care only about reward fairness. They also expect decision-making processes to be fair. In fact, research shows that employees care about the procedural justice of many organizational decisions, including layoffs, employee selection, surveillance of employees, performance appraisals, and pay decisions (Alge, 2001; Bauer et al., 1998; Kidwell, 1995). People also tend to care more about procedural justice in situations in which they do not get the outcome they feel they deserve (Brockner & Wisenfeld, 1996). If you did not get the promotion and later discovered that management chose the candidate by picking names out of a hat, how would you feel? This may be viewed as adding insult to injury. When people do not get the rewards they want, they tend to hold management responsible if procedures are not fair (Brockner et al., 2007).

Why do employees care about procedural justice? There are three potential reasons (Cropanzano, Bowen, & Gilliland, 2007; Tyler, 1994; Tyler, Degoey, & Smith, 1996). First, people tend to believe that fairness is an end in itself and it is the right thing to do. Second, fair processes guarantee future rewards. If your name was picked out of a hat, you have no control over the process, and there is no guarantee that you will get future promotions. If the procedures are fair, you are more likely to believe that things will work out in the future. Third, fairness communicates that the organization values its employees and cares about their well-being.

Research has identified many ways of achieving procedural justice. For example, giving employees advance notice before laying them off, firing them, or disciplining them is perceived as fair (Kidwell, 1995). Advance notice helps employees get ready for the changes facing them or gives them an opportunity to change their behavior before it is too late. Allowing employees voice in decision making is also important (Alge, 2001; Kernan & Hanges, 2002; Lind, Kanfer, & Earley, 1990). When designing a performance-appraisal system or implementing a reorganization, it may be a good idea to ask people for their input because it increases perceptions of fairness. Even when it is not possible to have employees participate, providing explanations to employees is helpful in fostering procedural justice (Schaubroeck, May, & William, 1994). Finally, people expect consistency in treatment (Bauer et al., 1998). If one person is given extra time when taking a test while another is not, individuals would perceive decision making as unfair.

Now let’s imagine the moment your boss told you that you are getting a promotion. Your manager’s exact words were, “Yes, we are giving you the promotion. The job is so simple that we thought even you can handle it.” Now what is your reaction? The feeling of unfairness you may now feel is explained by interactional justice. Interactional justice refers to the degree to which people are treated with respect, kindness, and dignity in interpersonal interactions. We expect to be treated with dignity by our peers, supervisors, and customers. When the opposite happens, we feel angry. Even when faced with negative outcomes such as a pay cut, being treated with dignity and respect serves as a buffer and alleviates our stress (Greenberg, 2006).

OB Toolbox: Be a Fair Person!

• When distributing rewards, make sure you pay attention to different contribution levels of employees. Treating everyone equally could be unfair if they participated and contributed at different levels. People who are more qualified, skilled, or those who did more than others expect to receive a greater share of rewards.
• Sometimes you may have to disregard people’s contributions to distribute certain rewards. Some rewards or privileges may be better distributed equally (e.g., health insurance) or based on the particular employee’s needs (such as unpaid leave for health reasons).
• Pay attention to how you make decisions. Before making a decision, ask people to give you their opinions if possible. Explain your decisions to people who are affected by it. Before implementing a change, give people advance notice. Enforce rules consistently among employees.
• Pay attention to how you talk to people. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Be kind, courteous, and considerate of their feelings.
• Remember that justice is in the eye of the beholder. Even when you feel you are being fair, others may not feel the same way, and it is their perception that counts. Therefore, pay attention to being perceived as fair.
• People do not care only about their own justice level. They also pay attention to how others are treated as well. Therefore, in addition to paying attention to how specific employees feel, creating a sense of justice in the entire organization is important.

Sources: Adapted from ideas in Colquitt, J. A. (2004). Does the justice of the one interact with the justice of the many? Reactions to procedural justice in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 633–646; Cropanzano, R., Bowen, D. E., & Gilliland, S. W. (2007). The management of organizational justice. Academy of Management Perspectives, 21, 34–48.

Employers would benefit from paying attention to all three types of justice perceptions. In addition to being the right thing to do, paying attention to justice perceptions leads to outcomes companies care about. Injustice is directly harmful to employees’ psychological health and well-being and contributes to stress (Greenberg, 2004; Tepper, 2001). High levels of justice create higher levels of employee commitment to organizations, and they are related to higher job performance, higher levels of organizational citizenship (behaviors that are not part of one’s job description but help the organization in other ways, such as speaking positively about the company and helping others), and higher levels of customer satisfaction. Conversely, low levels of justice lead to retaliation and support of unionization (Blader, 2007; Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001; Colquitt et al., 2001; Cropanzano, Bowen, & Gilliland, 2007; Masterson, 2001; Masterson et al., 2000; Moorman, 1991; Skarlicki & Folger, 1997).