At some point in your career, you likelyencountered a boss you believed was unfair. You probably thought to yourself, “WhenI’m a boss, I’m never going to be like that!” Sadly, there is no objectivemeasure of fairness. Instead, each time you attempt to level the playing fieldon one dimension, you throw it off balance on another.
You can start with the most standard measure offairness, which focuses on the outcomes of your decisions. Did yourdecision-making process lead to a fair distribution for everyone involved? Youcan apply this test to common decisions such as how you allocate workload,offer development opportunities, and dole out rewards and recognition. You canbe sure that your team is scrutinizing the outcomes of these high-profiledecisions. If one person is disadvantaged by your decision making (e.g.,assigned a less desirable shift or given a more difficult assignment) multipletimes, it’s likely that they will perceive your decision-making as unfair.
Unfortunately, there’s more to it. In addition tothe fairness of the outcome, your team will be judging the fairness of your process.Was your decision-making process inherently fair, regardless of the outcome? How you arrive at your decision will carryas much weight in how you are perceived as the decision you ultimately end upmaking.
The challenge is that when you try to optimize oneversion of fairness, you can inadvertently taint the other. As a simpleexample, imagine assigning workload based on a flip of a coin. Because acoin-flip is random, it can be considered a fair process. Now imaginethat you flip the coin ten times and seven of those times it comes up heads.Now the person who chose heads gets 70% of the workload — an unfair outcome.The takeaway is that you need to be mindful about both your decision-makingprocess and the resulting outcomes.
One interesting side note: researchhas suggested that the relative importance of the fairness of the outcomeversus the fairness of the process depends on which an employee hears about first.The research looked at a hypothetical hiring process in which some applicantswere evaluated with a fair process and some with an unfair process. Some of theparticipants were told about the process that was used to make the selectiondecision before hearing whether or not they got the job, whereas others weretold about the process after.
For those who heard about the process before theoutcome, the fairness of the process (rather than whether they got the job ornot) predicted their overall satisfaction. For example, people who heard aboutthe process of evaluation, but found out that they were ultimately not hired, were OK with that outcome because theybelieved the process leading to that decision had been fair. Forthose who learned about the outcome first, the fairness of the outcome was moreimportant. For example, when people first heard that they were not hired,without any explanation of the process used to arrive at that decision, theyimmediately assumed that the decision was unfair. The study provides animportant lesson: when you’re using a fair process that might lead to an unfairallocation, be sure to provide details about the process before your teamlearns of the decision.
Even once you invest considerable effort indeciding fairly, that’s no guarantee that it will be perceived that way by yourteam. Don’t make the mistake of assumingyour decisions will speak for themselves. If you are focusing on anequitable process for choosing who gets promoted, where you will weigh certaincompetencies or styles more positively than others, make your intentions knownto your team. If you’re emphasizing an equal sharing of the bonus pool toreinforce the importance of every member of the team, be upfront about it.
You are the boss and you have the discretion tomake those calls. Regardless of how you choose to make the difficult calls, it’s critical that you communicate whatyou’re thinking. Transparency increases trust in the process and has valuefor your employees above and beyond the specifics of the decision-makingprocess.
In the end, we all learn that life isn’t fair. As aboss, you’ll learn this much sooner than others. You’ll face difficultdecisions where no resolution seems ideal and where the outcome will beperceived as fair by some and unfair by others. Don’t be too hard on yourself.As long as you have thought carefully about what the business needs and madeyour assessment of the best answer as objectively as possible, you have doneyour job. You will always have an opportunity to restore balance with the nextdecision.
Adapted HBR Oct 2018Davey