What do you do when you realise that you are behaving in a way that is the opposite to the values you hold? When you believe you are fair, but others don’t? Just how can you increase your leadership reputation for fairness?

Firstly, all power to you for noticing. That’s an important first step, and it isn’t necessarily as simple as it sounds.

With the end of Reconciliation Week in Oz and the George Floyd protests in the US, now is a good time to reflect deeply on just how well we do fair.

I believe deeply in fairness. I ‘know’ I’m fair. Yet I also know that I can come up short. We’re not all perfect; what’s most important is seeking to improve how fair we are.

I previously shared a coaching conversation with John and how he came to the realisation that despite his strong value for fairness, he was being quite inconsistent. He was fair with some of this team, but not with others.

He professed a strong value for fairness; it was the reason he was persisting in his actions with one of his team members. Yet our conversation left him with the realisation that by being fair with this one person, both he and everyone else in the team was paying the price. Fair for one person, unfair for everyone else.

It was like taking off a blindfold; he could suddenly see the inconsistency with which he was applying his value of fairness.

John is not unusual, we all do this to some extent. We humans live complex lives and hold competing commitments; we experience value dilemmas regularly. The big opportunity is to be open to them, to recognise them and take action to be better aligned and more consistent. And to work on reputation.

John chose to reconsider just what it means to him to hold the value of fairness. He acknowledged that he’s taken his notions of fairness from his childhood and simpler situations and applied them to his leadership work. There’s some adjustment to be done to take the complexity of leading teams of people into account.

Is fairness a trigger for you?

Values are a great guide to action. They give us focus and motivate action. But they can also constrain action. Thankfully, they are malleable, they’re not set in stone. And being able to adapt his own sense of fairness, and figure out how to be more consistently fair is an important part of John’s continuing leadership journey. And by shifting how he sees fairness, he can change how fair he is in his actions, and amplify his good reputation.

Fairness is one of the SCARF triggers we are attracted to what we believe is fair, and feel a sense of threat when we experience unfairness.

And it’s complicated in teams where we have a bunch of people who are all triggered a bit differently. Fairness might be No. 1 for some, but not others.

To get to know what triggers you and your team members, and how fairness is seen, complete the SCARF online assessment and find out what your main social threat triggers are.

When all team members have completed the assessment share your results. Each person can share their most likely triggers and discuss how they play out for them. This could be part of a broader team development activity, or a standalone conversation. It’s a helpful way to build a conversation about values, which are often highly emotive.

What colour is fairness?

The more diversity there is in the team, the more complicated fairness becomes.

I know my own sense of fairness-threat heightens when I do or say things that cross gender rules. It’s the same for race, and other demographic groups. When there’s a clear majority demographic profile in a group, identity threat can be triggered for those who don’t see themselves as a part of it.

This occurs in teams as well as in broader society. The unfair and harmful actions of police officers in Australia & US are just the tip of the unfairness iceberg.

Not everyone values fairness in the same way

That’s partly because no matter how strongly some of us believe in fairness and equality, the harsh reality is that not everybody wants fairness.

Not all bias is unconscious. People high in Social Dominance Orientation support dominance by whites, see inequity as valuable, feel justified oppressing others. I wrote about this earlier – see ‘What Price Inequality’ for more.

They actively and sometimes violently oppose attempts to reduce status differences.

The most effective way to change is for majority voices, the power holders, to demand an end to unfairness. People from different races carry an extra burden for noticing when unfairness occurs. How about we lighten the load and notice our bias ourselves? We can be vigilant, predict unfairness and actively work to unite across difference.

To be a fairer leader, increase:

  • Transparency – set clear expectations, let people know how decisions are made, show them the results
  • Communication – let people know what’s happening, in plain language… and repeat
  • Involvement in business decisions – open up decision making to others, as they feel competent to contribute
  • Team protocols – they help create psychological safety, reduce identity threat and provide guidance for what fair is for us; they give a good base for checking actions and holding each other accountable.

These steps are summed up in my Fairness model above.

What is one new thing that you could do to better manage fairness in your team?

If you’d like a hand dealing with such tricky leadership situations, and being fairer, check out my coaching options.


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