Being “Fair”. Can You Be Fair to Everyone?

In a recent blog I talked about relationship trust and how it was critical to a leader’s credibility.   Important to building this trust is making decisions that are seen as “fair to everyone” – something easier said than done.  How can a leader make decisions that everyone involved see as fair?

In business, team leaders often have the task of making “tough calls” where some members benefit and others lose out. Clearly, winners and losers have different views about the fairness of decisions. It’s up to the team leader to minimise the risk of members feeling that a decision has been made unfairly. If this is done well, people will be more likely to support you and less likely resist the decision’s implementation.

My experience is that being seen as fair is largely about how a leader goes about making team decisions. A team leader needs to be mindful that people have personal biases about fairness and that for decisions to be seen as fair, the team members generally must be involved in the decision process.

In their 2013 book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath suggest that to make decisions that will be seen as fair one needs to adopt ideas from court-room research on “procedural justice” – the procedures necessary for coming to a fair decision.  People can be said to receive procedural justice if they are given the chance to be heard and present their case, if they are able to challenge the information used if they think it incorrect, and if the decision process is free of bias and self-interest.  The research demonstrates that this decision process is crucial to the sense of fairness that people feel in the aftermath of decisions, as illustrated in the following.

In court cases those on the winning side are normally happy with the decision, as expected, while the reaction of those on the losing side depends largely on whether or not the decision process is seen as fair.   In many cases those who lose but see the process as fair are almost as satisfied as the winner.  In contrast those who lose and see the process as unfair are likely angry and resentful.  Where the process is unfair even winners can be unhappy.

This research is supported by my own experience as a mediator. One of the reasons people like mediation is that the essence of the process is allowing both parties to have their say and feel heard and understood. The process provides parties with the opportunity to respectfully challenge alternative views and offer their perspective on the issues. Once this happens the parties are usually willing to explore how they might move forward and more often than not find solutions. The independence of the mediator and the fundamental fairness of the process are critical to its success.

Here are some of the Heaths’ suggestions for making decisions that are seen as fair:

  1. Expanding decision options:   A narrow focus on current options and economic criteria can mean that other things are out of sight. Making an ethical decision requires one to seek an option that is fair to all concerned.  The economic cost of unfairness must also be taken into account.   Unfair decisions increase the risk of upsets to the decision’s implementation.
  2. Compromising: The most direct way of making a fair decision is to get all concerned together and get them to agree.  For practical reasons this can’t be done for every decision, but for complex decisions and where powerful parties are involved, reaching a compromise by this means is unavoidable.  While the compromising process might be difficult and time-consuming it has its advantages.  First, when people work together to find a solution that they can each live with, the decision is better informed and the risk lowered.  Second, the initial slowness of bargaining and reaching a compromise can be offset by the participants’ buy-in to the decision and consequent speed up of the decision’s implementation.  In managing complex projects this is the widely used decision process known as “front-end loading”.
  3. Procedural justice: The elements of delivering procedural justice are straightforward – give people a chance to present their case, listen to what they say, use accurate information and give people the chance to challenge the information, avoid bias and self-interest, and apply the principles consistently across situations.
  4. Trusting the process: People must perceive the process as just.  A critical element in people’s perceptions of procedural fairness is “attentive listening”, something I have emphasised in previous blogs.  The Heaths point to the need to make the reality of your listening visible to others.  While in normal interactions you might signal that you have heard the other’s question by stating it back to them, that does not show the other that you have thought about the question and taken it into consideration.  The Heaths recommend the approach of stating back the other’s position in an improved form, on the basis that if you can articulate someone’s point of view better than they can it must be proof that you have been both listening and thinking.
  5. Defending decisions:   If you have made a decision that some people think unfair you need these people to know that the decision was made with proper consideration and process. The Heaths think it is counterproductive to follow the normal instinct of digging in and vigorously defending your position (as in PR and politics), for anecdotal evidence says that it seldom works and always raises anxiety.   They suggest that doing the opposite can be more effective.  Critiquing the decision and pointing out its flaws, rather than trying to defend it, does not produce anxiety and emphasises that the leader’s decisions are properly considered and reality based.  The message is not one of weakness but of reality.

The key take-away

If you want to be seen as fair so that people work with you rather than against you:

  • Give everyone a chance to be heard
  • Listen attentively and demonstrate you’ve understood what is being said
  • Allow discussion so that views can be respectfully challenged
  • Compromise when it makes sense to do so
  • Acknowledge the weaknesses or risks associated with your decision and clearly explain why you nevertheless feel it makes sense to do what you propose to do.


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