Life is not fair! So what?

Life is not fair! Who told you it is? It is not, and let’s be grateful for that. Why? Because what is and isn’t fair means different thing to each of us. Let me give you an example from my childhood. I have a sister that is two years younger. When I was ten years old I had a great appetite and was able to eat an enormous amount of food. She was eight and didn’t eat much. It is Sunday, we have a lunch and both of us get a steak. Only one! She cannot almost eat it. I gobble it up and then had to eat tons of bread or potatoes as I still feel hungry. Each of us got one steak. Was it fair? According to my mom it was. According to me it of course wasn’t. I eat twice as much so I deserve two steaks. Did I produced twice as much work, or was twice as much nicer? In my mind, not relevant. And let’s be grateful that life is not fair because, maybe, I didn’t deserve a steak at all…

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “fair” as (among other things):

  • a: marked by impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism <a very fair person to do business with>
  • b (1): conforming with the established rules : allowed
  • b (2): consonant with merit or importance : due <a fair share>

So what does this mean in a professional environment for a leader? How do you explain to your team whether something is or is not fair? How do you react when you are approached by a subordinate demanding a new computer because it is not fair that his colleague got one and he didn’t? How do you make the unfair life for everyone as much fair as possible? One way is to make sure you make your decision as impersonal as possible. To do just that you should consider couple of thoughts.

Have clear values and stick to them

Having a solid value system will not only help you to get through rough times but will also guide your team. If you live by your values and your team sees that your actions are in line with your words you gain respect and trust. When people trust you they will feel that you are fair in dealing with them and the others. If everyone knows that one of the basic values you adhere to is the need of fairness it will be much more easier for you to push forward actions that you believe are fair even if they may not seem so fair to others. They will still see that this is what you strongly believe in and because it is consistent with your actions in the past they will follow.

Be able to explain your position

Always be able to answer the “Why” question. If you are unable to explain why you believe something is fair and needs to be done then how can you expect others to believe in it? People have different points of view on what “fair” is and being able to explain your position is the key.

Be transparent and consistent

Explaining your position is the start. The next step is to announce it to the team so they understand what the decision is, why it was done, and why you believe it is fair this way. It is there for everyone to see. You prevent people speculating about hidden agendas and secret deals, you show them trust and because it is consistent with your standard behavior the team will accept your view of the fairness. And even if they don’t believe it deep in their hearts they will at least accept it.

Set the rules and follow them

To help you being consistent you may need more than set of values. What helps is having couple of basic rules derived from your values. Value itself might be difficult to explain. You can have values like “openness” or “fairness” but what does it actually means? As discussed before these may mean different things to different people so you need to have set of simple rules that explain the values.

Play with the cards you’ve got

Sometimes you get to a tough spot when whatever you do it is clear that your actions will not be seen fair by everyone. There will be those who will feel that even after your explanation it just isn’t fair. Then don’t dwell on the fairness and turn it around. Don’t focus on the negative impact to that individual but find the positive side. As the saying goes “every cloud has a silver lining” and it is just a question of mindset. If you help your team member who feel something wasn’t fair to find the positive side in long-term or just push his focus away of the issue to something more positive it helps. It will not change anything on the decision or the way the person feels about it but it will move his attention to something more positive. And human brain is wired in such a way that we get more of things and feelings we focus on.

Let me illustrate these things on a simple example. Your company sits in a building that offers ten parking spots per hundred people. How do you decide who should get the spot and who needs to park farther away from the office? What most companies would do is to give it to the most senior team members, usually managers. Is it fair? Sure it is, from the perspective of the managers. But what the perspective of the team? They work as hard as the managers so why the preferential treatment? What if the environment you are creating promotes equality? What if you want the managers to be really close to the team? Then you just cannot do it this way. So you follow the principles outlined above and can come up for example with something like this:

  • Have clear values and stick to them = you treat all your people with respect and the same way regarding of the title or position in the company
  • Set the rules and follow them = who comes from outside the city limits gets the parking spot, who lives in the city can use other means; be clear in that you understand there are other approaches that can be seen as fair by someone, but since we selected one approach we will follow it
  • Be transparent and consistent = be clear on who got the spot; don’t make exceptions, that would break trust of the team
  • Be able to explain your position = you provide equal opportunities and you believe that for a team work everyone has should get an equal chance to feel the successes but also the pain (not having space to park the car); only because someone has a fancy title doesn’t make him better person than rest of the team
  • Play with the cards you got = for those who travel just from within the city the use of public transport can be a hidden opportunity to read, or to use bicycle and do something for their health; or bring up solidarity with those who have to travel from far away

The best thing you can do as a leader and in fact as an individual is to learn to play with the cards life deals to you. Compare it with a game of poker or any other card game. When you get your cards dealt you don’t get angry or upset and start complaining that it is not fair you got just one pair and your opponent royal flush. You just accept the cards and make the best out of it. With that attitude you will enjoy the game and be glad you can be with your friends and have some relaxing time. So why not to behave the same way in the real life?

Twitter type summary: “Sticking with your values, being firm, transparent and consistent in your actions will make you seen as a leader who is fair.”

How do you decide what is fair? Does it even matter? How do you deal with people who feel your decisions are not fair and who are hurt by it?

4 thoughts on “Life is not fair! So what?

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