Connecting the Dots: Fairness, Engagement & Emergent Leadership

Engagement has been defined as “an energetic state of involvement with personally fulfilling activities that enhance one’s sense of professional efficacy.” 

Christina Maslach - Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

There is only so much we can focus on at one time. That’s why connecting the dots among the more important variables that affect organizational performance, near-term and longer-term, is so critical.

In this article, I revisit a couple themes—engagemence and emergent leadership—in order to help connect the dots.

In business, an enterprise is defined by its aims and goals. It is purposive insofar as it aligns energies and actions toward certain ends and outcomes. It’s normative insofar as it guides action with standards of efficiency, effectiveness, appropriateness, and sustainability.

The discipline of management builds a system that reliably generates desired near- and longer-term outcomes. It is a rational discipline of thought and action that provides the functional stability, prudent controls, and financial predictability that signal to investors and other stakeholders that the firm is a “good bet.”  

Leadership, on the other hand, is differentiated by its focus on the human factors that affect the quality of judgment, fidelity to values, and attunement to the needs and capabilities of the people who drive the system. Leadership behavior asserts strategic direction. It also iteratively shapes alignment with the outcome goals and the norms that define what is good, right, proper, and adaptive.

Now, about emergent leadership: There will always be some degree of formality and hierarchy in an enterprise, because fiduciary duty and regulatory compliance require it. But given today’s flatter, faster-moving, globally dispersed organizations, we must act less formally with well-aligned acts of leadership at all levels of the organization—that’s what we mean by emergent leadership.[1]

The Role of Fairness

In an earlier article on the engagement of early-career professionals, we observed that one variable greatly affecting our perception of the organization and the quality of our engagement (attitude, motivation, performance, intention to stay, etc.) is the perceived fairness with which people are treated. Quite simply, we want to know that we are being treated fairly in comparison to others. And it’s not merely an appraisal of how evenly distributed opportunities and rewards seem to be on the scale of justice.

We want to know that our leaders care about us as much as they do about others. We therefore argued for a dual ethic of justice and care. Note that distributive justice, as a norm, is perceived through cognitive appraisals of how evenly goods are distributed within the organization, i.e., “do we get our fair share?” On the other hand, care, as a norm, relies more on an affective mode of appraisal, i.e., “do we feel that we are noticed, respected, and cared about by our leaders?”

Modeling Fairness

We now add a third element to the notion of fairness: reasonableness. What we mean to signify here is the perception that our leaders are thoughtful and willing and able to explain themselves. We see “where they are coming from,” which deepens and broadens our trust in them. This amounts to a form of modeling—as leaders, we must be exemplars of the norms we believe are necessary to optimize engagement and promote aligned acts of emergent leadership at all levels of the organization. So, let’s briefly consider what research tells about how such modeling works.

Social psychology has established empirically that exemplars of virtuous and effective behavior influence our desire to practice similar behavior.[2] Research further confirms that the emotional expression of these models is an important force for social learning and the adoption of cultural norms in organizations.[3]

In a recent experimental study, researchers tested whether observational learning based on a third party model affects the fairness behavior of the observer. They found that when we observe a model expressing regret about acting unfairly, we are more likely to act fairly ourselves, and that when we observe a model expressing pride about acting unfairly, we are more likely to act unfairly. The “bad boy” example of the latter phenomenon might be someone like the Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street whose famous words were “Greed is good!”

What this research tells us is that the norm of fairness, to become pervasive, requires that leaders talk about it and express the thoughts and feelings that went into their deliberations and decisions. When leaders discuss these matters in the presence of those they lead, followers are more likely to affirmatively answer questions that bolster their engagement. Are my leaders fair in the sense of:

1)     Justly distributing opportunities and rewards?

2)     Showing genuine concern for me and my development?

3)     Being thoughtful and articulate in explaining what guides their actions?


In today’s fast-moving world of global commerce, a sense of urgency can lead us to focus on that which is good for us and to neglect the broader view of how our actions affect others. However, given a moment’s consideration, we will readily see that these “others” are persons—that they are stakeholders whom we have reason to care about and care for.



[1] For a more complete statement of our point of view on the approach to leadership that is best suited for building such an organization and promoting emergent leadership, see our whitepaper Generative Leadership. Also, we recommend that you read The Potential to Lead, a whitepaper that specifically addresses how to identify and develop the potential of early-career professionals to contribute emergent leadership.

[2] Van der Schalk, et al (2015). The Social Power of Regret: The Effect of Social Appraisal and Anticipated Emotions on Fair and Unfair Allocations in Resource Dilemmas. Journal of Experimental Psychology.

[3] Eberly & Fong (2013). Leading via the Heart and Mind: The Roles of Leader and Follower Emotions, Attributions and Interdependence. Leadership Quarterly.