A high level of justice perception not only promotes employees’ task performance, organizational citizenship behavior, and creativity, but also reduces their potential organizational retaliation and deviance behavior. To enhance employees’ justice perceptions, first and foremost is ensuring that leaders adhere to justice rules. However, a frustrating reality is that leaders often fail to do so, even when they recognize the importance of justice rule adherence. Thus, in recent years scholars have increasingly focused on explaining the above phenomenon. Scholars adopting an “actor-centric” perspective have found that leaders’ low levels of justice-related traits and justice motives are among the key factors that lead them to violate justice rules. However, a growing number of studies reveal that leaders with both high levels of justice-related traits and justice motives will sometimes violate justice rules. Therefore, scholars have called for moving beyond the “actor-centric” perspective to a “situation-centric” perspective by investigating the role of contextual factors in affecting leaders’ justice behavior. Sherf et al. (2019) were among the first to do so by investigating how leaders’ work overload influences their justice rule adherence. However, there is little research on how political environment may influence leaders’ justice behavior. An organization is not only a workplace for assigning and completing tasks, but also a political site infused with political behavior. Understanding how and when an organization’s political environment may impact leaders’ justice rule adherence has important theoretical implications.
To fill the above gaps, in this paper we investigate how political environments affect leaders’ justice rule adherence. Based on the strength model of self-control, we argue that, at the within-person level, leaders’ perceptions of organizational politics (POP) will be positively related to their ego depletion, and their tenure will weaken this positive relationship between POP and ego depletion. Nevertheless, the relationship between leaders’ ego depletion and justice rule adherence (and thus the relationship between leaders’ POP and justice rule adherence via the mediation of ego depletion) depends on their leader identity. The research model is shown in Figure 1.
To test our theory, we conducted a survey in a large commercial bank in an eastern province of China, using a time-lagged interval-based experience sampling method. Our final sample included 570 observations from 73 branch managers. Baseline survey included measurement of demographic characteristics (tenure), leader identity, instrumental motive and value-expressive motive of just behavior, and moral identity. Daily survey lasted 10 consecutive work-days. Opening from 16:00 to 19:00, Time 1 questionnaire contained measurements of POP and ego depletion. Opening from 20:00 to 00:00, Time 2 questionnaire involved measurements of justice rule adherence, positive affect and negative affect.
A multi-level confirmatory factor analysis was conducted using Mplus 8.3 software to examined scale validity of key variables. As Table 1 showed, four-factor models fitted better than three-factor models. Further, the model fitted best when justice rule adherence was treated as a second-order factor, χ2 = 1167.64, df = 537, χ2/df = 2.17 (< 5), RMSEA = 0.05 (< 0.08), CFI = 0.94 (> 0.9), TLI = 0.93 (> 0.9), within-person SRMR = 0.04 (< 0.08), between-person SRMR = 0.05 (< 0.08) (see Table 1).
In order to perform within-person analysis, it was required that variables measured each day had sufficient within-person variance. The results showed that all ratios of within-person variance were more than 30%, which provided enough variance for cross-level path analysis (see Table 2).
Table 3 reported the descriptive statistics and correlations of cross-level variables. As shown in Table 3, justice rule adherence was positively associated with positive affect (r = 0.26, p < 0.001), instrumental motive (r = 0.23, p < 0.001), value-expressive motive (r = 0.37, p < 0.001) and moral identity (r = 0.21, p < 0.001), which was consistent with previous findings and reflected the necessity of controlling these variables.
Table 4 reported the results of multilevel path analysis. Leader’s daily POP had a significantly positive effect on daily ego depletion (β = 0.10, SE=0.05, p = 0.049).
The interaction between daily POP and tenure had a significantly negative effect on daily ego depletion (β = -0.07, SE = 0.02, p < 0.001) (see Table 4). The simple slope analysis showed that the influence of daily POP on daily ego depletion was significantly positive under low tenure (slope = 0.26, p = 0.001), while the influence was not significant under high tenure (slope = -0.07, p = 0.157), and their difference was significant (d = -0.34, p < 0.001) (see Figure 2).
Daily ego depletion had no significant effect on justice rule adherence (β = -0.001, SE = 0.04, p = 0.984), but the interaction between daily ego depletion and leader identity had a significantly positive effect on daily justice rule adherence (β = 0.19, SE = 0.06, p = 0.002) (see Table 4). Further, simple slope analysis showed that the influence of daily ego depletion on daily justice rule adherence was significantly negative (slope = -0.19, p = 0.006) under low leader identity, while significantly positive (slope = 0.19, p = 0.019) under high leader identity, and their difference was significant (d = 0.38, p = 0.002) (see Figure 3).
Table 5 reported the results of moderated mediation effects. When tenure was low and leader identity was high, the indirect effect of leader's daily POP on daily justice rule adherence via daily ego depletion was significantly positive (95% CI [0.01, 0.10], see Table 5). When both tenure and leader identity were low, the indirect effect was significantly negative (95% CI [-0.10, -0.01], see Table 5). In the other two cases, the indirect effect was not significant when both tenure and leader identity were high, or when tenure was high and leader identity was low (95% CI [-0.05, 0.01] and [-0.01, 0.05], respectively, see Table 5). These results showed that for new leaders (leaders with short tenure), the indirect effect that leaders' daily POP influences daily justice rule adherence via daily ego depletion was positive under high leader identity, while negative under low leader identity.
We make important theoretical contributions to the “situation-centric” perspective research on justice rule adherence, POP, and the strength model of self-control. First, instead of highlighting the task assignment environment before, we explore the consequence of leaders' embedded political environment on their justice rule adherence. At the same time, different from the previous discussion of the conscious cognitive mechanism, the unconscious self-control mechanism of ego depletion is taken as the mechanism to explain the influence of situational factors on justice rule adherence. Second, this paper is the first, to the best of our knowledge, to verify within-person changes of POP and link it to proactive justice research. Finally, we extend the boundary conditions for understanding how ego depletion affects leader behavior. In addition, this research offers crucial practical implications for how to shape the organizational political environment and direct it to increase leaders’ justice behavior.