04 Nov Fairness in Leadership: It’s not what you think…
When I was twelve years old, my baby sister was at the tender age of six, and she would often make it very clear to me and my younger brother, that despite her being the youngest, she was really “in charge.” She had our parents wrapped around her little finger and she knew it.
My brother and I were often frustrated by the fact that we were held to certain rules and standards, that for some reason did not apply to our little sister. When one of these conflicts would come up, I would default to my standard logical and rational appeal to my mother…
“Ma… that is not FAIR… she gets away with everything!”
In my mother’s classic “Plato-esque” style, she would thoughtfully reply with this statement:
“Fair is the place where you ride the Merry-go-round.”
Frustrated and quite confused, I was left to my own devices to try and figure out what exactly my mother meant by that. It wasn’t until many years into becoming a leader (and a parent) that I would understand that statement more than my mother could have imagined.
There are times, as leaders, we hear grievances from employees related to “fairness” and how they are being treated “unfairly”.
So what is fairness?
Merriam Webster defines fairness as fair or impartial treatment: lack of favoritism toward one side or another.
Nowhere in that definition does it indicate that fairness is treating everyone in exactly the same manner. Yet, oftentimes, people conflate the word “fairness” with sameness, thereby misconstruing the true intent of the word.
Fairness is not treating your employees, kids, friends, family members exactly the same way. It simply means you should treat them justly and impartially, suspending assumptions and biases as much as humanly possible. As a leader, you can manage each employee in a unique and appropriate manner, as long as you are being impartial and doing your best to avoid favoritism.
Why? Because everyone is different. The way they learn, the way they are motivated, how they respond to criticism or praise is unique to the individual and as leaders, the more cognizant we are of these idiosyncrasies, the more effective we can be. And when you ask your employees if they wanted to be treated in the exact same way as their peers, many of them will give a resounding “no” to that question, because they see themselves as unique and special.
Yet, you will often hear that they want to be treated “fairly” and “consistently” and they do not want their bosses to play favorites. Are these unrealistic expectations from the employees? Are they mutually exclusive?
I would argue they are not and that you can be fair, consistent and equitable in your role as a leader, while still attending to and appreciating the uniqueness of each person within your team.
Is it easy? Of course not! But that is part of the art and science of leadership. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Now, get off that Merry-go-round and get to work!
Lead on and stay safe!