What Many Leaders Misunderstand About Fairness

You probably weren’t in your leadership role for a long period of time before you heard someone on your team say, “That’s not fair.” There is no doubt that that accusation stung because you are ethical, honest, and above all . . . a fair leader.

The term “fair” means different things to different people. Usually, being accused of being an unfair leader happens when you are perceived to have not treated everyone equally, nor consistent with your company’s rules, policies and past practices. In some cases, though, practicing leadership that may be perceived by some as “unfair” is actually great leadership.

First, let’s make a basic distinction between fairness and consistency. Based on insights shared by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden, authors of “Contented Cows MOOve Faster,” consistency means that you treat everyone equally, at all times and in all situations. Fairness means that you treat each of your team members uniquely, with equity, based on their preferences, needs and varied contributions.

Consistency is easy, as it makes no distinction based on individual team members’ contributions, or even lack of contribution. You just interpret and follow the rules consistently, treating everyone the same.

Fairness is tough, as you’ve got to be thinking, applying logic, and using judgment. A fair leader recognizes that not all team members deserve the same amount of recognition, feedback, training, or mentoring. Joe Kraus, founder of, a web portal, boldly states: “Nothing demotivates people like the equal treatment of unequals. When you hire a bozo and treat him the same as a rock star, it deflates the rock star.”

Here are five ways to strengthen your fairness factor:

Outline Success

First, have a clearly defined vision of what success looks like in your business, and how it is measured. Then, frequently broadcast the goals and strategies to achieve the goals. Next, provide consistent updates so that all team members know where they stand individually and how the team is collectively performing.

Recognize and Reward Uniquely

In the real world, not everyone wins and gets a trophy with every endeavor. Your business is no different. If you’ve been clear about what success looks like, and how it is measured, chances are some employees are hitting home runs again and again; some are routinely meeting the goal; and some spend more time arguing with you that the goals are unrealistic and unattainable than it would take to achieve the goal.

A fair leader provides more recognition and, when appropriate, rewards those who meet or exceed the goals. The whiners who don’t meet the goal will cry, “Unfair” when there is no blanket recognition or reward for all team members. When this happens, know that you’re earning fairness points with all those who count, and ignore the whiners.

Coach and Mentor

A fair leader holds all employees accountable for clearly defined performance standards. When an employee falls short, the leader invests time and energy in helping the employee develop and address the performance challenge. If the employee exhibits a desire to learn and grow, the fair leader continues in the mentoring capacity. However, if for whatever the reason the employee will not or cannot address the performance challenge, this fair leader makes a judgment call to let the employee go, or move the employee to a more suitable position. This fair leader understands that carrying a slacker, and treating him/her the same as the rock star, is absolutely unfair.

Get Personal

A consistent leader treats everyone on their team the same way, and remains somewhat distant from the people side of the employee/employer relationship. Isn’t that what we were taught in Leadership 101? A fair leader, however, understands that their team is a beautiful blend of diverse talent, personalities, ethnic backgrounds and just general quirkiness. The fair leader knows team members as individuals, respects their uniqueness, and treats people the way they want to be treated. By doing this, the fair leader is able to synergize the group, often achieving phenomenal outcomes because people feel good about themselves and are motivated to go the extra mile.

Be Open to Feedback

Fair leaders are humble. They are good listeners. They welcome and accept feedback, even when sometimes being accused of being “unfair.” They keep the communication lines open with team members by asking questions and reflecting on the answers. It would be easier to only hang out with the cheerleaders, but a fair leader knows that he/she will never continue to grow and further develop as a leader without encouraging and being open to tough feedback.

Being a fair leader takes courage, wisdom, people smarts and a whole lot of good judgment. Being fair is tough, but fair leaders achieve better results, have greater employee loyalty and retention, and top the charts in respect. Being consistent and treating everyone the same is easy, but the easy route won’t get you, or your team, as far.

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