For the sake of fairness

A leader of character treats people with fairness and dignity.


Do you ever find yourself struggling to balance your response to leadership situations in order to be just? Do you angst over whether you have treated an individual consistently with ways that you have responded in similar situations previously, with others?

If you can answer 'yes' to each of these questions and more, then it is likely that fairness is an important value for you. Not for you the “Tough sh#t!” response. Not for you, that uncaring shrug, when someone complains that you have failed to be even-handed. If such responses are a million miles from the way you would react, then you are well on your way to behaving how leaders of character would when faced with similar challenges. And by the way … there will be such times aplenty.


What might have appeared like a fair response to you, is still open to interpretation by others - often! The point of this post is not to ensure that you get every decision 100% correct, 100% of the time - no-one can promise that. But what it will help you understand is why fairness is so critically important to people and why fairness is not the same as equality. 

Equality is not always fair

Let’s take the latter point and deal with that pretty quickly. In a pure meritocracy, where everyone was paid the same salary, everyone would need to be doing exactly the same work; hustling for the same number of hours and producing the same value for the organisation in order to be rewarded equally. Yet, you know there are people in your team who perform at a consistently higher level than others. They just do. To pay them an equal salary to those who are not performing at an equal level is unfair. It would be a case of equality being (markedly) unfair. As a leader, I’m confident that you ensure the better performers are recognised and rewarded differently from those who are not at that level yet. That’s fair. Unequal, but fair. Don’t confuse the two. 

Deep roots of fairness

So, why is ‘fairness’ so important? Just think back to when and where you most often hear the phrase, “but that’s not fair!” Yep, pre-school. We seem to be hard wired to identify unfairness from a young age - even if that judgement is so subjective we are the only person judging something as unfair! As we get older most of us learn to accept that life throws up inequity from time to time. It is a fickle thing. Learning that however, is not an excuse for leaders failing to try to ensure fairness when and where they can. It improves trust in you as a leader and raises engagement with those that follow you. 

When people judge things to be unfair the neuroscience response is to provide fewer resources to the prefrontal cortex that results in a diminished ability to think through things in a conscious and more complex way. People tend to ‘revert to type’ when threatened by unfairness. So, in order to avoid such a meltdown in your team members what can you do to ensure that you are being, and being perceived to be, fair?

Here are FIVE things you can do immediately as a leader: 

  1. Do your due diligence - ensure you preview decisions and review your actions so that you are being consistent wherever possible. 
  2. Communicate - where you can explain clearly your decision-making process so recipients can understand why you ended up with the conclusions you have
  3. Share decision-making where possible - get the team to contribute to decisions where appropriate. That will help with engagement and provide insight into the process that was taken. 
  4. Be open to the fact that you will get it wrong - you are a human being (in case you had forgotten!). You will get things wrong from time to time. If there is a suggestion that you have 
  5. Provide feedback often - it is unfair for people you lead to be unaware that they are not performing at the standard that you need them to. If there are technical or behavioural issues, it is unfair of you to fail to provide clear, timely, action-oriented feedback for that individual (It’s also unfair on the rest of the team!). 

Good luck. #Leadlikeyouloveit


Performance Edge Partners help embed sustainable transformational change at individual, team and organisational levels. Stop wasting your precious resources and help you embed change, properly, the first time. Find out more by contacting us here. 

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For the sake of fairness
Posted On
Nov 1, 2016
Posted In
Impactful leadership development  Engaging people 

John Lewis
Little Hearts Matter