Fairness

by Sharlyn Lauby on October 22, 2009

Not too long ago, I wrote a post on niceness as a leadership competency.  In addition, Lance Haun and Jennifer V. Miller tossed in their own thoughts on the subject (thanks so much guys).  As part of the discussion, Ann Bares shared one of her fave excerpts from Malcolm Gladwell about being fair (versus being nice.)  It came from an article in The New Yorker titled “The Politics of Politesse”.

“The problem, of course, is that niceness is overrated as a virtue. Many cultures are nice. The Southern antebellum aristocracy was marvelously well-mannered; its members left tasteful calling cards, entertained gracefully, and conducted their personal affairs with the utmost discretion. But they had few other virtues; in fact, it was the practice of niceness that helped to keep other values, such as fairness, at bay. Fairness sometimes requires that surfaces be disturbed, that patterns of cordiality be broken, and that people, rudely and abruptly, be removed from their place. Niceness is the enemy of fairness.”

I want to thank Ann for sharing that.  It really got me thinking about the concept of fairness in our roles as managers and leaders.  Being fair is such an important competency and we spend so little time talking about it.  Of course, we want to believe all of our decisions are fair.  But many times our decisions cause us to get labeled “unfair” by our employees.  So how do we learn how to be fair?

Being considered fair is a result of trust.  Each of us gains the trust of others by being honest, holding ourselves accountable, acting in a transparent manner, and communicating clearly.  If we are trusted when we make decisions, even if it shakes things up a little as Gladwell mentions, people understand we have considered all of the options and are acting in the best interest of the organization.  Our decisions are therefore deemed fair.

We’ve had a lot of conversation on HR Bartender about nice as a leadership competency.  And, I’m sure it won’t be the last time we discuss leadership.  But I’ve learned that while being nice might be pleasant … there are other qualities that make us better, and more successful, leaders.

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Mary Jo Asmus October 22, 2009 at 9:11 am

Sharlyn, this is a very thought provoking post, as was the earlier one on “niceness as a leadership competency”. I agree that niceness can prevent fairness; in fact, I see it all the time! There is a limited role for niceness, and a leader must be strategic and intentional about when to use it.

A while back I had written a post about whether kindness should be a leadership competency. I think that there is also a place for kindness in leadership, and that kindness is distinctly different from niceness. Your thoughts?

akaBruno October 22, 2009 at 9:12 am

Good points.

As a professor, I am often cognizant of feelings of unfairness or “playing favorites” that are perceived by students. While I like to believe that I treat all students fairly, particularly in grading, they may feel, through my daily interaction with them, that all students are not treated the same. I may, for example, spend more time with some students than others (i.e., talking to those in the front row informally before or after class, given their closer proximity, than those in the back).

I may think I am being nice and fair, but these unconscious “microinequities” (http://www.magazine.org/content/files/Microinequities.pdf) can pile up and have a negative effect on performance.

RecruiterGuy October 22, 2009 at 9:14 am

Great follow up, Sharlyn.
The statement on trust and transparency nails it. Communication to our coworkers, peers and colleagues is easily so much more more focused and understandable when honesty is established and a priority in the working relationship.

Trust is everything.

“Nice” is a great window dressing – and easily recognizable (even flagged) by those outside of immediate team structures. But fairness, inclusion, and smart business decisions are much preferred leadership qualities as far as I’m concerned.

Another great post, thanks!!

Sara Fox October 25, 2009 at 10:01 am

Hi – I don’t comment on many sites but had to on yours. It’s really nice! I really like how you write – very to the point, unlike a lot of other sites. Thanks for having this site. I’ll bookmark it and visit regularly. Keep up the great work!

hr bartender October 27, 2009 at 5:03 am

Mary Jo,

First – my apologies, I thought I posted a reply to your question days ago.

I do agree with you that “nice” and “kind” are two different things. Although many people use the words interchangeably.

Ultimately no one competency can or should define us as leaders. We’ve got to incorporate many skills in order to be successful. Perhaps more importantly, we have to stop falling back on those that are easiest and take the difficult path when the need arises.

Thanks again for commenting on the post!

Catherine October 27, 2011 at 8:24 am

Can anyone tell me how to avoid the quicksand of bias leadership as an employee. When trying to point out obvious unfair practice I’ve been acused of “bullying” the poor dear that was the perpitrator.

Sharlyn Lauby October 28, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Catherine – Thanks for asking the question. I’m going to write a post about this!

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