Good management is not about being fair

Book.itsnotfair I must first confess that fairness is not a core value of mine.  I know people for which being fair is important, but I’ve never experienced or expected fairness, so I do not empathize that need.  If fairness is an important core value of yours, it might be best to just skip this post and come back another day.

That’s not to say that people were especially mean to me or anything, it’s just that I’m the youngest, and in that role you learn rather quickly that life is not fair.  You are slower, you are not old enough, you are not invited, etc. etc.  Now, as a parent of two, I realize that fair is the least common denominator solution (and one I confess I resort to a lot more in parenting than I do in management but that is a different blog!).

As a manager, I do not believe that fairness is the goal.  I believe job fit and outstanding performance are.  To that end, I look to find what works with each person, and attempt to give them what they need to be their best.

Since management is about working with people and not robots, it is logical that what each person needs is not going to be the same.

When you come to terms with the fact that you are not attempting to be fair, you are let loose of a lot of unnecessary baggage with management.  You start focusing on doing the right thing and recognize that what is right, can be different for different people.

Is it easier to be fair.  Sure it is, but it is often much less effective.

8 thoughts on “Good management is not about being fair

  1. This is a very interesting topic! Many people equate “fair” with “same” and that is where the problems start, especially when communicating with other people who define “fair” as “equity” which is more in line with what you do with regard to finding what works with each person, for example. This is a much more nuanced view of “fair.” It looks like you’ve learned to not even go there, since “fair” is such a loaded term ;-). This topic as it pertains to job fit is covered well in The Differentiated Workforce: Transforming Talent into Strategic Impact.

  2. This is definitely an issue related to the use of the word “fair.” If someone committed a crime but did not get the same punishment as others who committed the crime, then some would claim that it’s not fair, and they’d be correct. But if the argument were made that everyone should receive that punishment even if they didn’t commit the crime because it would “only be fair”, then people would obviously object.

    When talking about rewarding performance, we have to take into account the actions and results of a specific individual and treat them accordingly, rather than treating everyone the same without regard to their contribution. To distribute rewards (or punishments) equally without regard to an individual’s own deeds and accomplishments should clearly not be considered “fair.”

    Rather than trying to change people’s perception of that particular word, perhaps a new word should be used instead, but it is difficult to think of one that wouldn’t bring it’s own connotations along with it…

  3. “As a manager, I do not believe that fairness is the goal. I believe job fit and outstanding performance are.” – Spot on Meg! This is so important for both organizations and employees to excel. Thank you for bringing this up!

  4. I agree good management isn’t about fairness if we’re talking about equality, which is beloved by poor performers and hated by top performers.

    But there are various definitions of ‘fair’, like treating people with respect, giving them a chance to grow and trying to find the right role for them – AND doing this for everyone, not just a select few. Which it sounds like you’re saying. 🙂

  5. I’m not too sure what definition you are using when you refer to the word fair. Taking a look at the Oxford fairness means:


    • adjective 1 just or appropriate in the circumstances. 2 treating people equally. 3 considerable in size or amount. 4 moderately good. 5 (of hair or complexion) light; blonde. 6 (of weather) fine and dry. 7 Austral./NZ informal complete. 8 archaic beautiful.

    Definitions 1 and 2 are appropriate here. Being fair does not mean you treat everyone the same regardless of the performance they put in. Rather it means being honest, having integrity, handling people justly and in line with circumstance. Unfortunately too many managers lack in this respect.

    Life may not be fair but that is no reason not to have fairness as a value. Our society has become a money-first, consumer-based society who are only interested in themselves at the expense of everyone else. This attitude is never more evident than in the corporate world.

    You state “I believe job fit and outstanding performance [is the goal of a manager]”. How are you going to motivate you employees to be top performers if you do not treat them fairly? While it may not be the goal of a manager, I still believe you need this as one of your values in order the function as a top performing manager.

  6. @Mark
    @Working Girl

    Interesting how loaded the word fair is. I think I knew that before I threw down this blog post as I expected it to start a conversation (and it did!). So Yay! for that. I don’t think I realized just how differently people would come at this though.

    In the end, I think we are all saying the same thing that a certain “don’t be an ass”, “be a decent person”, “treat people with respect” is absolutely expected/required to be a [good] manager.

    Treating people exactly the same is not.

    Thanks all for joining the conversation.

  7. You’re so right: life is not fair.
    THAT is exactly why people must try to be.
    Don’t pretend to “maturity” about this when all you are saying amounts to one big excuse for amoral behavior. This sure lets a ton of folk off the hook. Don’t be proud of giving them excuses. I hate whiners, too, but those who excuse moral crimes are worse.
    BTW: the surest way to treat everyone unfairly is to treat everyone the same.

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