How To Be A Good Leader: Be Fair


My first managerial job was the shift manager position at a fast food restaurant. I had to manage a lot of teenagers, and one thing they all had in common is the belief that there were always treated unfairly. Before my promotion, I sometimes took sides in petty disputes about time off or pay discrepancies, but managing people can change your perspective.

We had a theft problem once. One of the employees was stealing money from the cash drawer and we were trying to figure out who it was. A young girl that had worked in the restaurant for a while came to me complaining about her schedule. She hated working the cash drawer and felt like she had to do it every shift. It wasn't "fair." I explained to her that we were having a theft problem and it wasn't public knowledge, and that she had been working the cash drawer a lot because we knew it wasn't her, so we trusted her. Her tune changed. It didn't seem so unfair after all. She actually felt good about it. The experience helped to reframe my ideas about fairness at work.

When you think about leadership, what words come to mind? I usually think of the stuff that I've read, about how leaders are charismatic, commanding, transformational, inspiring, humble, egotistical… it's really all over the map. But fairness is not something that I have often seen in a list of leadership qualities. Should it be?

A recent research paper examined the existing literature on leadership and on fairness. Some of the quotes are worth noting.

Justice has been shown to have a great impact on people, both within and outside of organizations. Justice research has for instance shown that fairness is associated with greater satisfaction with and acceptance of decisions (Thibaut & Walker, 1975), higher perceived legitimacy of authorities (Tyler, 1994), higher job satisfaction (Sweeney & McFarlin, 1993), greater commitment to organizations, groups, and society (Tyler, Boeckmann, Smith, & Huo, 1997), higher task performance (Cropanzano & Greenberg, 1997), more organizational citizenship behavior (Moorman, 1991), and less employee theft (Greenberg, 1990b). In short, research in organizational justice provides compelling evidence that fair treatment is associated with more desirable attitudes and behavior in response (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2002; Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson, Porter, & Ng, 2001). Clearly thus, people care about fairness. Whether this is because fairness is believed to serve self-interested motives (Thibaut & Walker, 1975), because fairness reflects social evaluations (Lind & Tyler, 1988; Koper, van Knippenberg, Bouhuijs, Vermunt, & Wilke, 1993), or because fairness is a value in and of itself (Folger 2001), people respond more positively if they feel to have been treated fairly.

It definitely makes sense, but, don't most of us already believe that we treat people fairly? If so, then why are there so many bad leaders?

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I think part of the reason is that fairness, in and of itself, can be vague. In addition to making decisions that are fair, you must effectively communicate to others so that they understand the full contexts of your decisions. Otherwise, they are likely to view it through their own lens, seeing only part of the situation and, as a result, feeling like they were treated unfairly.

If you want to be a better leader, focusing on fairness is a good place to start. Here are some things to try:

  • Be open and honest about the reasons behind your decisions.
  • Create processes that are transparent, so that people understand how decisions are made.
  • Listen to both sides of the story, and make sure everyone's voice is heard.
  • Communicate clearly

If you think that is easier said than done – you are right. But if you think that it isn't worth the time and effort to improve, well, you probably have a future in politics (where cronyism beats fairness hands down).

  • All of the above are good, but you leave out an important thing that sueprvisors going through my programs consistently identify as part of “fairness.” That is that consequences should match up with performance. As one trainee put it years ago, the only thing you should discriminate on is performance.

  • And always lead from the front – if your people see that you won’t ask them to do something that you’re not prepared to do yourself they’ll go with you.

    Try telling a bunch of guys to move forward into a potentially dangerous situation when they’re unarmed and you’re sitting safely out of the firing line and see how keen they are to do what you ask.

    Stand up and lead them into the same situation and you won’t be walking into the situation by yourself.


    My above mentioned post in my blog , I said that bad bosses can be defined just one simple way — being unfair

  • An excellent example of leadership was provided by the spur-of-the-moment actio taken by George Westinghouse, here:

  • You cannot judge if “you” are fair. When the military wanted generals to “get in touch with their inner jerk” they asked others (like family and direct reports) for an unvarnished opinion.

  • Nir

    Fairness in and of itself does not matter as much as how a boss is able to make his/her employees perceive fairness. In fact, being purely fair would encourage you to pay every single employee the same regardless of effort and product. Those that work the hardest are not always the ones that do the best job, and hence if you as a boss are completely fair you discourage talent and that extra push of effort that staff may commit to when they know it will be noticed and rewarded.

  • The idea of creating processes so that people understand how decisions are made is especially important to me.

    Also I think that many workers don’t understand what companies themselves are at their core and what they stand for, so when decisions are made, many workers are in the dark as where the reasons or reasons came from.

  • I think fairness does not only include being open and honest. A good leader can only do fair treatment to his subordinates when he understands them. Some subordinates work hard but they are not very efficient and some are very efficient. If you do not reward the former then, it can be considered as an unfair treatment.

  • I think a good leader is way beyond just being fair. Its really impossiable to be fair to every one.

  • i m currently writing a subject on leadership for my blog and will post it soon. I do agree a leader should be fair, but the most important a leader must have the ability to influnce others. A leader who is found to be unfair is not a charismatic person who is able to make good decisions and inspire others to reach one common goal. i will explain further in my post.

  • This is a great post on fairness. Reminds me of the 60 Second PhD in leadership that Dee Hock, founder of Visa, first came out with:

    Think back to the best boss you ever had and the worst boss you ever had.

    1. Make a list of all things done to you that you abhorred.
    3. Make another list of things done tto you that you loved.

    Phil Dourado

  • elie bassil

    be honest with your self before ,you will be fair or not