Are you a fair leader? - Michelle Gibbings

Are you a fair leader?

At some stage in your life, you’ll likely have heard someone throw out the line ‘life isn’t fair’ – implying that you need to suck it up and move on. Yes, many aspects of life involve luck and chance, and sometimes situations are unfair.

However, the line also suggests that we shouldn’t strive for fairness. Yet, fairness is a deep and innate trait. We are acutely attuned to when we are treated fairly or otherwise. This starts from a very early age with the inevitable child’s wail of ‘That’s not fair!’.

Fairness is instinctual
We have five primary domains of social experience. These elements draw us toward something because we classify it as rewarding or move us away because we don’t see it as good or rewarding.

Fairness is one of those domains.

Dr Sarah Brosnan from Georgia State’s Department of Psychology and Philosophy and Dr Frans de Waal from the Psychology Department at Emory University examined the behaviour that arises when primates (our closest related species) witness equal and unequal rewards being given.

Their paper, Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay, published in Nature magazine in 2003, studied the brown capuchin monkeys. Their research found that the monkeys became agitated and refused to perform a task when another monkey (they could see) received a better reward for doing the same task.

It’s the same for us. We notice what’s fair and unfair. When it’s fair, it motivates us; when it’s unfair, it can demotivate us or lead us toward unhelpful behaviour.

Our desire for fairness carries through all aspects of our life, including the workplace.

It matters at work
When you consider the character traits of great leaders, being fair won’t often top the list; indeed, it may not even rate a mention.

However, beyond its ethical underpinnings, fairness is a powerful leadership quality because it filters into so many aspects of work. For example, reward and recognition, promotions, decision-making, how you allocate and spend your time…I could go on.

The psychological contract between employees and employers relies heavily on perceived fairness.

Research shows focusing on fairness and equity helps create the space for equal opportunities and a more positive, trust-based, productive and engaged work environment. When employees perceive they are treated fairly, they experience greater job satisfaction, higher levels of motivation, and increased organisational commitment.

Rewards as a demotivator
While pay and rewards aren’t the ultimate motivational driver, they can demotivate. People compare themselves to others regarding outcomes (i.e. benefits and rewards) and their inputs (i.e. effort, time expended, skill level and ability).

Team members may be very happy with their remuneration until they discover their colleague, who they believe worked less than them, got more than them. If a person believes they work harder and contribute more and are paid less, that causes discontentment and can drive negative behaviour. What underpins this is fairness or what in the research world is called equity theory.

As Psychologist Adrian Furnham and John Taylor, in their book Bad Apples: Identify, prevent and manage negative behaviour at Work, state: “Equity theory is concerned with outcomes and inputs as they are perceived by the people involved, not as they actually are”.

In practice, the greater the perceived inequity, the greater the motivation for the person to try and find a way to restore the balance. How someone does this will vary, but it can lead to an employee being less productive, taking more sick leave or committing fraud as the person tries to find a way to fix the inequity.

Manage perception and reality
The challenge is that what is fair or unfair is based on a person’s interpretation of what’s happening, so perception plays a large part in this challenge.

Regardless of the merit (or otherwise) of that perception, the outcome is a sustained impact on a person’s motivation and the team’s morale.

As a leader, you play a crucial role in ensuring that your team members are treated fairly, and you balance the focus on the individual and the collective. You want to ensure your team is fairly recognised for their efforts both individually and collectively.

Individual versus collective reward
Often when we come together, we achieve amazing things. I’ve frequently seen how ideas by one person are improved by another and how when we are in a group, our best ideas are generated, debated, implemented and achieved.

Curiously though, organisations typically reward people as individuals and reward and recognition schemes often focus on rewarding the individual over the collective.

On one side is the argument about fairness if people don’t contribute equally to the results. While on the other side is the argument that reward and recognition schemes are subjective and can negatively impact team dynamics, cooperation and collegiality.

Challenge yourself and consider the level of objectivity that’s applied when reward and recognition are being determined. Are you being fair? Are you backing your team or backing an individual? Do you know what matters to your team members?

Focus on value
Sure, different people want to be recognised in various ways; but what’s common is people want to be valued and appreciated for what they do and for that recognition to be genuine and fair.

Great leaders can see value in the difference each team member brings. They recognise each person is unique and therefore has different needs. They work to bring out the best in each person and do so in a way in which they feel valued, respected and well-treated.

Take the time to understand how your team wants to celebrate and recognise success. Focus on efforts that bond the team rather than divide the team because what we can achieve together is much greater than what we can achieve alone.

Recognise its value to your leadership
Fairness is a cornerstone for good leadership. It’s hard to build trust, loyalty and credibility without it. Remember, leaders who consistently exhibit fairness in their interactions and decision-making are perceived as more trustworthy and authentic by their team.

Fair leaders empower their teams by providing equal opportunities and recognising individual contributions. They also encourage open dialogue, enabling diverse perspectives to shape organisational outcomes. They strive to handle conflicts and make decisions by applying principles of fairness.

Your challenge is to deeply inquire into the role fairness plays at work for you. Ask yourself:

  • How much effort are you applying to fairness at work?
  • What role does it play for you as a leader?
  • Where are your opportunities to improve?

As the respected American journalist Brit Hume said: “Fairness is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised“.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated. 

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