Why fairness is a leadership trait that matters

| January 3, 2020

When you are developing a leadership program to uplift the capability of leaders one of the behavioural traits that isn’t likely to make the framework is fairness.

This isn’t surprising because fairness isn’t usually listed as a critical leadership trait for leaders. This is despite the fact that fairness is an innate human trait.  We are acutely attuned to when we feel we are being treated fairly or otherwise.  Indeed, this starts from a very early age with the inevitable child’s wail of ‘That’s not fair!’.  This need for fairness carries into our adult years and into the workplace.

Fairness is instinctual

Dr Sarah Brosnan from Georgia State’s departments 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,” which was 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 (who they could see) received a better reward for doing the same task.

This plays out in the work environment all the time, particularly with pay, and reward and recognition schemes.   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.

Perception plays a part

While pay and rewards aren’t the ultimate motivational driver, they are a de-motivator. People compare themselves to others in terms of outcomes (benefits and rewards) and inputs (effort, time expended, skill level and ability).

People don’t want to be unfairly treated.  If a person believes they work harder than someone else, and yet they are paid less, they’ll be unhappy.  While we would commonly see this as fairness, in research terms it is known as equity theory.

As Furnham and 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”.

What happens in practice is that the greater the perceived inequity, the greater the motivation for the person to try and find a way to restore the balance.  How they do 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 a person’s view. 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.

Leaders play a key role in ensuring that the amount their team members are paid is fairly distributed and that people are fairly recognised for their efforts.  They also play a similar role in ensuring team members are treated fairly in terms of the amount of care and attention the leader pays to them.

Great leaders see value in the difference each team member brings to the team, and so they strive to recognise this unique contribution while recognising their subsequent different needs. In doing this, they aim to bring out the each person’s best in each person by ensuring they feel valued, respected and fairly treated. This is important to consider in the development of leadership programs.

Develop the capability

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

Like all leadership skills, fairness is a skill that can be learned and enhanced.  It starts with the leader understanding what drives how they think and behave in particular circumstances, and to be able to identify how that can lead to real or perceived inequity arising in how they treat team members.

Once this awareness is in place, they are then able to consider what elements of their leadership behaviour they need to adjust to mitigate that occurring.

Core to this is the leader articulating their values, which can be encompassed in a statement of the type of leader they want to be and how they live those values every day in the workplace.  This can form an integral part of a leader’s development program.