Why ‘being fair’ is critical to leadership success
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Why ‘being fair’ is critical to leadership success

“No fair!” kids whine when they think somebody’s been treated better than they were — even over something that appears insignificant.

But it’s not just kids. Adults, too, get all heated up over even hints of unfairness. And that includes your employees.

Examples: You assign a slightly nicer-than-average cubicle near your office to a new hire instead of giving it to a reliable long-term employee. Or you send an important email to your team, but forget one person. Or you have a business-casual dress code, but don’t say anything when one guy comes in wearing blue jeans with holes in the knees.

None of these events may seem like a big deal to you. But according to neurological and behavioral research, they’re likely to resonate strongly for the people who work for you.

It’s a status thing

Neuroscientists at UCLA found that even a little unfairness can trigger feelings of alienation, anger, and even disgust.  These reactions occur, the researchers said, because unfairness disrupts a basic human drive: the need to form secure social bonds.

The person who’s treated unfairly infers that their status in the group is at risk. When leaders fail to “follow the rules” it seems as if they’re giving some people preferential treatment. And when the chips are down – whether that means layoffs at the company or who gets to eat when there’s not enough food – you don’t want to be at the bottom of the pecking order.

Experimental studies bear out these conclusions. In one study, people underwent brain scans while playing a video game with two other people. At one point, the researchers led them to believe that the other players were excluding them from the game. In that moment, the scans showed greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region associated with physical pain.

In another study, researchers did MRI scans of people playing the Ultimatum Game, which is used to study how people react to unfairness. In the game, people are paired up. The first person gets a sum of money and proposes a split to the second person. The second person can accept or reject the offer. If they reject it, neither person gets any money. The scans showed that an uneven split lights up the anterior insula, a part of the brain associated with feelings of disgust. The more unfair the offer, the greater the activity.

Formal and informal rules

Of course, we all break rules – or as leaders, fail to enforce them – from time to time. Sometimes we do it inadvertently. Sometimes we do it for expedience. Sometimes we just think a rule is silly.

But if you want to build trust with your people, you need to be sensitive to perceived fairness: Understand both the formal and informal rules that govern the workplace. If you have to break them, offer a sound reason: Explain that you’re putting the new hire near you because you need to coach him. If you break a rule by accident, acknowledge the mistake: Send a follow-up email to the team, explaining that you forgot to include that one person. And if you ignore rules because you don’t think they matter, change them: Update the dress code to authorize blue jeans.

4 faces of fairness

Managers must be aware of four categories of fairness:

1. Procedural.

This has to do with the way decisions are made. Procedural fairness is important, for example, when you have to apply discipline or fire someone. Other employees will be watching. They want to know that if they’re ever in that situation, they can count on a fair process.

2. Distributive.

This deals with the perceived fairness of rewards. A manager might fail to communicate the criteria for year-end bonuses, creating a perception that some people got more because of favoritism. Or people might believe rumors that a low-performing employee is paid as much as high performers.

3. Informational.

People want to know they’re in the loop. Of course you can’t share everything with everyone, but be as transparent as possible. If you must withhold information from some people and not others, offer a good reason.

4. Interpersonal.

This is the area most likely to trip you up. As a manager, it’s inevitable that you’ll like some of your people more than others – perhaps you share a common interest, or simply feel more in synch. But be aware that others are keeping score. If you go out to lunch with one or two employees and not others, you may be sowing deep resentment.


Remember, it’s not about the size of the perceived inequity. So if you sense or learn that somebody has taken a seemingly trivial event to heart, don’t brush it off as petty. When it comes to unfairness, there is no such thing as small.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Fairness: Why the Little Things Matter So Much.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Tabibnia, G., and Lieberman, M. (2007) Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence From Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.

Bezrukova, K. et al. (2010) Violent splits or healthy divides? Coping with injustice through fault lines. Personnel Psychology, 63 (3), 719-751.


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