How To Be A Good Leader: Be Fair

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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?

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).