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Fairness rules

Life isn’t fair. We hear this all the time, often in response to the associated common complaint, “That’s not fair.” Bad things happen to good people, and punishments often don’t fit crimes. For accidents and natural disasters, there’s not much we can do beyond supporting each other. However, plenty of unfairness stems directly from human actions.

Should we care that life isn’t fair? Emotionally, fairness matters, but we’re not children anymore. Typically, human unfairness is imposed by an authority figure responding to a situation. There are two common circumstances: having to make a choice that benefits some over others, like a manager making a staffing assignment, and needing to impose restrictions meant to prevent harm, like a referee imposing a penalty. Ideally, choices and restrictions would be determined fairly, but how do you do that, and how bad is it if you don’t?

How do you make fair choices? You should follow legal and ethical standards, but your choices may still feel unfair. The best approach is transparency—not because it guarantees fair initial decisions, but because it allows feedback that generates fair final decisions. How do you impose fair restrictions? You should follow published policies, but again your restrictions might still feel unfair. The best approach is proportionality to the intent—not because it magically solves everything, but because it encourages improvement while avoiding future issues. How bad is it if you ignore transparency and proportionality? Read on.

I can see clearly now

There are many ways to make decisions. (I discuss doing so using imperfect information in You have to make a decision.) Regardless of how you make your decisions, it’s crucial to be transparent about your thinking to those impacted. I mentioned earlier one big benefit of transparency: You get feedback that improves your current and future decisions. However, an even bigger benefit is gaining trust.

As a decision-maker, trust is essential to having your choices respected and followed. If people don’t trust your choices, they’ll replace your decisions with their own, falling out of alignment with each other and sabotaging your efforts. Distrust slows action, impairs negotiations, and subverts collaboration. Leaders, researchers, and economists have written books on the impact of trust in the workplace. You need trust—transparency provides it.

Why wouldn’t you be transparent?

  • Perhaps you were acting unethically. Well, the coverup is always worse than the crime. Be transparent and minimize the damage.
  • Perhaps you told people one thing, but actually thought another. Lying to the people you guide breaks trust. Apologize for being misleading and provide the truth. Over time, the trust you gain will far exceed the damage you cause.
  • Perhaps you are embarrassed about how you arrived at your decision. We often work with inadequate information and must rely on our experience (our gut). People won’t forgive you for hiding your reasons and not trusting them. They will forgive you for being human, and you’ll benefit from their feedback.
  • Perhaps you can’t share details without compromising confidentiality. You can still be transparent about your approach, as well as the confidentiality you respect. Remove the mystery, and people will understand instead of imagining the worst.
  • Perhaps your management made the decision and told you to keep it private. Hopefully, you advocated for transparency, respectfully, to your management. If they still insisted on privacy, you can be transparent about the approach your management took and the outcome you respect and will follow.

Eric Aside

Read more about transparency in More than open and honest.

Maybe I had that coming

Bad things happen. People make mistakes. (I discuss recovering from them in I messed up.) If you’re the leader involved (typically the manager), you need to impose restrictions that will prevent a recurrence of the error. You want the person (or people) involved to take responsibility and learn from the mistakes, yet you also want to be fair by making the restrictions proportional to the intent. Here are four factors to consider.

Factor #1: Should the person have been aware of the potential bad outcome?

  • If so, that’s careless—the person should mitigate the impact, apologize, do the root cause analysis (RCA), and complete the repair items.
  • If not, you have a newbie—training and additional automated safeguards (if possible) are sufficient to educate and avoid future trouble. The person can help the team on the mitigation, apology, RCA, and repair items.

Factor #2: Did the person try to hide the mistake?

  • If so, that’s unacceptable—in addition to directing the person to complete the mitigation, apology, RCA, and repair items, you should make your expectations clear: “Hiding problems is unacceptable. I expect you to let me and/or your teammates know about issues immediately, so we have time to mitigate their impact.”
  • If not, that’s exemplary—follow the guidance for the first factor and thank the individual for letting you know right away.

Factor #3: Has the person made the same mistake before?

  • If so, that’s strike two—in addition to directing the person to complete the mitigation, apology, RCA, and repair items, you should inform the individual that making mistakes is forgivable, but repeating them is not. A third recurrence should result in a performance review.
  • If not, that’s forgivable—follow the guidance for the first factor and reassure the individual that “Everyone makes mistakes. What matters is how you respond.”

Factor #4: Did the person intend to harm?

  • If so, that’s serious—in addition to directing the person to complete the mitigation, apology, RCA, and repair items, you should alert your manager, HR, and/or the Business Conduct and Compliance team as seems most appropriate to the situation. Even one instance may result in a performance review.
  • If not, that’s ordinary—follow the guidance for the first factor and be thankful that you’ve got a wonderful team of individuals who care about our customers and business.

Notice that in all cases, the restrictions are proportional to the intent—the worse the intent, the harsher the imposed restrictions. If your restrictions carry less impact than the intent, people may feel guilty because you failed to provide a penance, or they might repeat their mistakes because you didn’t hold them accountable. If your restrictions are more severe than the intent, people won’t feel safe working on your team, which stifles creativity, innovation, productivity, and trust. For more, read Is it safe?

It’s a fair cop

Fairness is essential for trust, accountability, creativity, innovation, productivity, and respect. When you make a decision, be transparent about how you arrived at that choice, and embrace the feedback you receive to improve future decisions. When someone makes a mistake, ensure the restrictions you impose prevent a recurrence and are proportional to the intent, using the issue as an opportunity to grow your people and reinforce your values.

Nothing builds trust like treating people with dignity and respect. People make decisions and mistakes all the time (sometimes at the same time). Use every one of these opportunities to enhance trust on your team, enabling your employees to perform at their best every day.

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One Comment

  1. “Don’t bring me {blank}, bring me {blank}”

    Need to change the standard way that gets filled in.

    At a previous job, the owner was expressing this to me. When he was a young engineer on a team building a huge manufacturing facility, he realized there was a bad flaw in part of the electrical system he had designed. Is was going to be very expensive to fix. He didn’t say anything for a week or so – until he figured out a mitigation. Then he came to the project managers with “Here’s the problem, and the solution.”

    Hearing that story, I was just thinking about the risk. But at heart he was an entrepreneur, so risk was like oxygen for him.

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