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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Justice: The benefit of an evolved morality

  • Gerard Seijts
  • |
  • Nov 11, 2019
Justice: The benefit of an evolved morality

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance. Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the leader character dimension of justice.

Leaders who are committed to justice ensure that individuals are treated fairly and that consequences are commensurate with contributions. They remain objective and keep personal biases to a minimum when making decisions. Further, they provide others with the opportunity to voice their opinions on processes and procedures.  Leaders provide timely, specific, and candid explanations for the decisions they made. And, lastly, they seek to redress wrongdoings inside and outside the organization or in society as a whole. 

Although justice and injustice play out in many arenas in today’s world, one longstanding and enduring area is gender inequality. In our Western society, stark injustices are easily identified and no longer deemed acceptable (even though they persist) – such as domestic and sexual violence, harassment in the workplace or even income/pay inequality. And yet, there are ongoing daily acts or transgressions, often perpetrated and perpetuated unconsciously, that continue to undermine women’s experience of the world as just and fair.   

Serena Williams is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. There can be little doubt that she redefined women’s tennis with her power, athleticism, and skill.  Williams has also spoken out repeatedly when confronted with what she perceives as injustice, both on and off the tennis court. One of her most memorable incidents occurred during and after the 2018 U.S. Open final. when Williams declared there is a double standard for men and women regarding on-court decorum.  Williams was given a third violation in the final for berating the umpire and calling him a thief for a one-point deduction. As Williams put it in her post-match interview: “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff … He has never taken a game from a man because they said thief.”  Legendary professional tennis player Billie Jean King, who is an advocate for gender equality and social justice, thanked Williams via social media for making the overdue point, tweeting: “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”  Research seems to back up King’s assertion. Studies have revealed a significant gender bias effect in elite sport refereeing, finding that male referees make harsher decisions in the female compared with male games. So what may be one of the reasons behind this gendered difference within a profession whose very role is to be objective, unbiased, and impartial? Research suggests harsher penalties occur because observers attribute women’s anger to internal characteristics (e.g., “she is an angry person’’ or ‘‘she is out of control”) while attributing men’s anger to external circumstances (e.g., “he's having a bad day” or “things were out of control so someone had to take charge”).

These findings transfer and are applicable to the workplace. For example, research by Michele Gelfand and Virginia Choi has shown that female employees responsible for trivial to small missteps are subject to far worse penalties than males. They describe how female advisers, despite being equally productive as their male peers on the job, were found to be 20% more likely than male advisers to get fired for engaging in any transgressions. Further, after their firing, women faced longer unemployment spells than their dismissed male colleagues. Ironically, as research showed, male advisers with a past record of misconduct were roughly two times more likely to be future repeat offenders than female advisers; and resolving the misconduct of males was 20% more costly on firms.

Ever heard of the words hepeat and bropropriation? Maybe not. But you – especially women – may be familiar with the following scenario. Did you or a female colleague ever say something in a meeting to a cool reception, only to have your boss or colleagues fawn over the same idea when raised a few minutes later by another male member of the team? The observation that a man appropriates a woman’s ideas – either purposefully or accidentally – and gets credit for them is not new; in fact, it is quite common. This sexist behaviour undermines team effectiveness by failing to fairly attribute, include, and value the contributions of all members. In addition to bropropriating ideas, research has also shown myriad ways men often dominate conversations: they interrupt women more than other men in conversations; men tend to interrupt women to assert power; men dominate conversations during professional meetings; and men and boys dominate conversations in the classroom.

Another example of social justice in the workplace occurred when Howard Schultz, the former chairman and CEO of Starbucks, was once challenged by a shareholder when he affirmed the company’s support for same-sex marriage. Schultz responded by asserting that Starbucks stock had performed well over the past year and articulating that not all corporate decisions were based purely on economics. Schultz also told the shareholder that if he thought the company’s social policies were hurting its financial performance and he could get a better return for his money elsewhere, he was free to sell his stock and invest in a different company. Not stopping at his own organization, Schultz spoke out clearly and often to other business groups, taking the view that leadership does not stop at your own organization and that a large, influential organization has the responsibility to try to shape society for the better. Justice may be an altruistic concept, but it is also a source of sustainable corporate performance. 

Primatologist Frans de Waal and his team put two capuchin monkeys from the same extended family in adjacent cages - fully visible to each other - to test the animals’ sense of fairness.  As a reward to performing a simple task, they gave both monkeys cucumbers. In the next round, they continued to give one monkey cucumbers as a reward but began giving the other monkey grapes for the same task: a much-preferred food, among capuchins. As a video of the experiment illustrated, as soon as this inequitable behavior began, the disadvantaged monkey began hurling the proffered bits of cucumber back at the researcher in fury, grabbing the bars of the cage and rattling them in apparent fury, and otherwise eloquently displaying its sense of justice betrayed. “This is basically the Wall Street protest, that you see here,” de Waal joked, at the end of the video.  But continuing in a more serious vein, he described several pairs of monkeys in which the “favoured” monkey—the one getting the grapes—actually began turning down the grapes when it realized that its fellow monkey was being shortchanged by the system.  This, in de Waal’s view, was evidence that primates have the benefit of an evolved morality – one that helps them cooperate to survive.

The logical extension is clear: Humans, too, have the benefit of an evolved morality.  And by another logical extension, the individual who embodies and taps into our innate sense of justice is likely to be a highly effective leader.  Janet Bannister, HBA '92, partner at Real Ventures, passionately explains the importance of justice in her leadership.

You can read more about justice in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).