Baer, MD, Rodell, JB, Dhensa-Kahlon, Rashpal, Colquitt, JA, Zipay, KP, Burgess, R and Outlaw, R. (2017). Pacification or aggravation? The effects of talking about supervisor unfairness. Academy of Management Journal.
Many employees feel a general sense of unfairness toward their supervisors. A common reaction to such unfairness is to talk about it with coworkers. The conventional wisdom is that this unfairness talk should be beneficial to the aggrieved employees. After all, talking provides employees with an opportunity to make sense of the experience and to “let off steam.” We challenge this perspective, drawing on cognitive-motivational-relational theory to develop arguments that unfairness talk leads to emotions that reduce the employee’s ability to move on from the unfairness. We first tested these proposals in a three-wave, two-source field study of bus drivers (Study 1), then replicated our findings in a laboratory study (Study 2). In both studies we found that unfairness talk was positively related to anger and negatively related to hope. Those emotions went on to have direct effects on forgiveness and indirect effects on citizenship behavior. Our results also showed that the detrimental effects of unfairness talk were neutralized when the listener offered suggestions that reframed the unfair situation. We discuss the implications of these results for managing unfairness in organizations.