Who’s the Fairest Leader of All: Because One Person’s Fairness is Another Person’s Affront

By Tom Davidson

In working with a team of supervisors recently, I asked them to prioritize a list of 14 leadership competencies so that I could coach them on the topics in the right priority for them, but the exercise took an unexpected turn.

A leadership competency is a bundle of behaviors” or a set of related skills needed for success on the job. Common leadership competency examples include influencing, problem analysis, decision-making, delegation and oral communication, just to name a few, but sophisticated models can have dozens of novel groupings at multiple levels in different organizations.

Looking closely at the given competencies, some for the first time, the new supervisors had difficulty with the prioritization exercise because one word could be interpreted in so many ways. The word was “fair.”

“What do they mean by fair?”
The ambiguous competency had to do with treating direct reports fairly, but the definition was of little help. While the description repeated the term “fair” and its synonyms, it did not include any examples or applications to sort out the ambiguity. Their questions remained, and they grew.

“What do they mean by ‘fair’? People define ‘fairness’ in many different ways! Does this mean that we should treat everyone the same? If so, then how do we deal with different levels of skills and motivation? Does this mean that we should make everyone feel fairly treated? If so, then we’re going to go nuts trying to treat everyone differently so they all feel treated the same!”

Their questions were so important that they determined a priority for their sessions. The competency dealing with fairness would be near the top of the list, because it was at the root of many performance problems they were experiencing.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how varying definitions of fairness are the cause of so many workplace, community, political and global issues, including war. After all, one person’s fairness can be another person’s affront.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
What will my supervisors do, and what should you do to make sure you are being the “fairest of all”? Here’s are my recommendations:

  • Definition. Find or craft your organization’s definition of fairness. While this is needed, it’s not enough, because as good as it will be, it too will be filled with ambiguity and remain open to interpretation.
  • Criteria. Develop three to five criteria that can be used to test whether an option, decision or employee relations issue is fair or not in your now shared and common definition.
  • Examples. Create scenarios and engage leaders in rigorous dialogue about how their definition applies to the wide variety of human behaviors in the workplace and what they would do in important situations.

While our friends who were wrestling with the term “fair” were there to learn a few things about leadership from me, they made me the student along with them. Good leaders are always learning. Ambiguity is part of organizational life, and making it work anyway is the nature of leadership.

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