Fairness Isn’t Just Nice, It’s Important

December 4, 2016
Wally Bock

You know that you’re supposed to be fair. What you may not know is how important it is. As Kathryn Dekas, a PhD member of the People Operations team at Google observes:

“Fairness perceptions are very powerful. They affect how people think about almost everything at work, but especially how valued they think they are, how satisfied they are with their jobs, how much they trust their supervisors and their commitment to the organization.”

When people think you’re treating them fairly, they will work harder. They will pitch in to help get the job done. They’re likely to have better morale and take more initiative. Bob Sutton describes what happens when they don’t think you’re fair:

“Numerous studies show that when people feel as if they’re getting a raw deal from their boss or employer, they give less in return; bad behavior runs rampant; and effort, efficiency, quality, civility, and other excellence metrics plummet.”

Two Kinds of Fairness

There are two kinds of fairness. Both count, but only one gets much attention.

People judge whether or not the reward, or punishment, or recognition, or whatever, is appropriate given the performance or behavior that triggered it. That’s how most of us think and write about fairness most of the time. The technical term for this is “distributive justice.”

But there’s another way to judge fairness that doesn’t get as much air time. People judge how you reached the decision and how you treated them. Researchers John Thibaut and Laurens Walker call this “procedural justice.”

It’s easy to get the decision right and the process wrong. Many a person has left a meeting with his or her boss fuming about the way they were treated and not thinking about the substance of the conversation at all.

Comparing With Others

People decide whether you treated them fairly by comparing their situation with the way you treated others. Think back to when you were a kid.

No doubt at some point your mother or father told you that you couldn’t do something. And on more than one occasion you probably said something like: “Mom. That’s not fair! Tommy’s mother lets him do it.”

Maybe it wasn’t your friend from down the block. Maybe it was your sister. Or maybe it was “all my friends.” You judged the fairness of the way you were treated by comparing it with how someone else was treated. People on your work team will do that too. That’s not all they do.

How You Treat Others Matters Too

One of the trickiest issues you have to deal with as a boss is the situation where you have someone on the team who isn’t pulling their weight or who is acting inappropriately. If we’re talking about somebody who consistently violates the rules, hasn’t shown any willingness to change, and is rude or selfish to boot, you’d better deal with it. If you don’t, the other people on your team will feel like they are not being fairly treated. What you allow, you condone.

Here’s What Makes It Harder

Human nature makes it harder to be fair. Let’s start with the fact that you’re the boss.

There’s a hefty amount of research that supports Lord Acton. Power (even the little bit you have) corrupts. It makes you more likely to treat your teammates like objects instead of people. You won’t be aware of this and they won’t tell you because you’re the boss.

Another fact of human nature makes this even more dangerous. We judge ourselves by our intentions. Since no boss I know sets out to be unfair, we think that our intention is what counts, not the way our teammates actually feel or react.

What You Can Do

Keep your emotional intelligence radar turned on “sensitive.” Be constantly on the alert for faint signals that what you’re doing is perceived as unfair.

Take the time to explain why you make the decisions you make. This is especially important if you are making a decision that appears negative or unfair.

Remember that every decision is a precedent. People will compare decisions you’ve made in the past with the decisions you make today.

Pay attention to team health. The disruptors and the slackers are poisonous to a good team. You know who those people are. So do your team members. And they expect you to do something about it.

There’s no way to get it right all the time. But if you work hard at treating people fairly, the odds are that you’ll get a break.

More From Wally Bock

One Last Time: How do You Motivate People?

What Happens When the Annual Performance Appraisal Goes Away?

Becoming a Great Boss: Where to Start

In addition to writing the Three Star Leadership blog, Wally Bock is an author, ghostwriter, writing coach and book doctor. In his past lives he has run a small publishing company, been a popular keynote speaker to audiences around the world, and served as a U. S. Marine. He loves good beer, good friends, and good stories.

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