By Liane Davey
At some point in your career, you likely encountered a manager you believed was unfair. You probably thought to yourself, “When I’m a manager, I’m never going to be like that!” Now that you’ve been promoted to a management position, you’re probably dedicating significant amounts of time and energy to making unbiased decisions, but no doubt finding that the right balance is elusive. Sadly, there is no objective measure of fairness. Instead, each time you attempt to level the playing field on one dimension, you throw it off balance on another. The best, if imperfect, approach is to understand the different forms of fairness and to be thoughtful about when and how you apply them.
You can start with the most standard measure of fairness, which focuses on the outcomes of your decisions. Did your decision-making process lead to a fair distribution (of inputs and outputs) for everyone involved? You can apply this test to common managerial decisions such as how you allocate workload, offer development opportunities, and dole out rewards and recognition. You can be sure that your team is scrutinizing the outcomes of these high-profile decisions. If one person is disadvantaged by your decision making (e.g., assigned a less desirable shift or given a more difficult assignment) multiple times, it’s likely that they will perceive your decision-making as unfair.
If that was all you had to worry about, life would be relatively simple. Unfortunately, there’s more to it. In addition to the 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? For example, if you were evaluating performance, did you include the right factors (such as measuring salespeople on both the total revenue and the profitability to avoid rewarding the people who sell unprofitable work)? Was your assessment of the variables in your decision objective and unbiased (e.g., did you get input from multiple sources to reduce the likelihood of favoritism)? How you arrive at your decision will carry as much weight in how you are perceived as the decision you ultimately end up making.
The challenge is that when you try to optimize one version of fairness, you can inadvertently taint the other. As a simple example, imagine assigning workload based on a flip of a coin. Because a coin-flip is random, it can be considered a fair process. Now imagine that 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-making process and the resulting outcomes. You might need to compromise on one form of fairness to avoid damaging the other.
One interesting side note: research has suggested that the relative importance of the fairness of the outcome versus the fairness of the process depends on which an employee hears about first. The research looked at a hypothetical hiring process in which some applicants were evaluated with a fair process and some with an unfair process (the difference was whether the evaluators scored all nine parts of the assessment protocol or only one of the nine). Some of the participants were told about the process that was used to make the selection decision before hearing whether or not they got the job, whereas others were told about the process after.
For those who heard about the process before the outcome, the fairness of the process (rather than whether they got the job or not) predicted their overall satisfaction. For example, people who heard about the process of evaluation, but found out that they were ultimately not hired, were OK with that outcome because they believed the process leading to that decision had been fair. For those who learned about the outcome first, the fairness of the outcome was more important. For example, when people first heard that they were not hired, without any explanation of the process used to arrive at that decision, they immediately assumed that the decision was unfair. The study provides an important lesson: when you’re using a fair process that might lead to an unfair allocation, be sure to provide details about the process before your team learns of the decision.
To this point, we have been talking about fairness as if it has a single definition that can be applied to either the process or the outcome of decision-making. That too, oversimplifies your challenge as a manager. There are two competing definitions of fairness — equality versus equity. In an egalitarian form of fairness, propriety is tied to how equal things are, whether that’s having the same process or the same outcome for everyone. Vacation policies where everyone gets the same number of days off would be one example. In contrast, an equitable definition of fairness allows for either the process or the outcome to vary based on some legitimate and equitable difference among people. In the vacation example, you might give more days of vacation for employees who have a longer tenure with the company. You end up with four different versions of fairness using either an equal or equitable definition applied to either the process or the outcome. Are you are starting to empathize with the manager you thought was being unfair?
Whether the fairness of the process or the outcome takes precedent and whether the formula is equality or equity will depend on the nature of the decision. Where you are trying to strengthen teamwork and connection, an equal distribution of the outcome can be useful. Profit sharing is a common method for rewarding an entire group for the successes they have achieved through collaboration. Where you’re hoping to spur individual performance, you can emphasize an equitable process. Sales incentives and other individual bonus payments encourage individuals to put in the maximum effort. Let the goals of the situation dictate which formula you use.
Even once you invest considerable effort in deciding fairly, that’s no guarantee that it will be perceived that way by your team. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your decisions will speak for themselves. If you are focusing on an equitable process for choosing who gets promoted, where you will weigh certain competencies or styles more positively than others, make your intentions known to your team. If you’re emphasizing an equal sharing of the bonus pool to reinforce the importance of every member of the team, be upfront about it.
You are the manager and you have the discretion to make those calls. Regardless of how you choose to make the difficult calls, it’s critical that you communicate what you’re thinking. Transparency increases trust in the process and has value for your employees above and beyond the specifics of the decision-making process.
In the end, we all learn that life isn’t fair. As a manager, you’ll learn this much sooner than others. You’ll face difficult decisions where no resolution seems ideal and where the outcome will be perceived 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 made your assessment of the best answer as objectively as possible, you have done your job. You will always have an opportunity to restore balance with the next decision.
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This content was originally published by Harvard Business Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Harvard Business Review