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When managers should be fair and when they should challenge the rules

Sometimes the right decision isn’t the most fair, but it can be a tricky line to toe.

When managers should be fair and when they should challenge the rules
[Photo: nicomenijes/iStock]

From early in life, we are attuned to the concept of fairness. As kids, if one child gets more candy than others, that is met with cries of, “That’s not fair!” And when we ascend to leadership roles, we often strive to be fair to the people who work for us.

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But why do we care so much about fairness?

Fairness versus justice

Paul Woodruff, in his excellent book The Ajax Dilemma, points out that organizations have ideals they strive to uphold. One key ideal is justice, which is the idea that people should receive the outcomes they deserve for the actions they take and the contributions they make within the organization.


Related: Are you a leader or a manager? Here’s the difference


As it turns out, though, justice is hard to enforce, because there are no clear rules about how to relate behavior to outcomes. For example, we know it is wrong to kill another person, but the law has gradations for killing. Soldiers who kill in battle are rewarded for killing. People who kill in self-defense are not punished. Those who kill accidentally are treated differently than those who intended to kill someone else. We even make a distinction between individuals who coldly calculate whether to kill another person versus those who kill in the heat of passion.

It is so hard to make these kinds of decisions that the legal system spends a lot of time and effort training judges to make distinctions and sets up courts of appeals so that the decision of one judge can be reviewed by others.

Most companies do not have the resources to ensure justice for their employees, so they substitute procedures designed to create reasonable outcomes. As Woodruff points out, these procedures are what he calls the doubles of ideals. They are procedures that resemble the ideal, but do not always lead to the same outcome.

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In particular, most companies strive for fairness rather than justice. They create rules that apply equally to everyone and take a lot of the weight of decision making off managers.

The advantage of treating employees fairly as a manager is that it is easy to justify the decisions you make. You can point to the rule that you apply to make a decision, and then people dissatisfied with the outcome cannot blame you for the outcome. If they have a concern, they need to take it up with the people who created the rules rather than with you as enforcer of that rule.

Enforcing rules and questioning them

When you first take on a managerial role, it is useful to strive for fairness. Learning to navigate leadership positions is hard. There are many times in which procedures that seem to be wrong-headed have benefits downstream in the organization that may not be obvious from your vantage point. Enforcing the rules as given is a way to ensure that you do not make decisions that have unintended consequences.


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At the same time, when there are procedures that don’t make sense to you, it is valuable to ask questions of the people above you. Find out why particular procedures have been put in place and what alternatives have been tried before.

The reason to both enforce rules and question them is that as you move higher in an organization’s hierarchy, you have to shift your emphasis from following rules to upholding ideals. Companies succeed not just by following the rules of a market, but by disrupting it. That disruption involves breaking the implicit rules of a market.

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Similarly, the decisions you make about personnel in an organization have to become more just as you ascend higher in the ranks. You may identify stellar employees who have not yet paid their dues but deserve more responsibility anyhow. Elevating those individuals may not be fair, but it could be the right thing to do.

Many articles focus on the differences between leadership and management. There is no single factor that separates these concepts. One important difference, though, is that managers are typically bound to execute procedures that are the doubles of core ideals. Leaders must develop the wisdom to know when a particular procedure gets in the way of an ideal, and to make good decisions that fly in the face of easily executed procedures.

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