Fairness in Leadership: It’s Usually a Plus, But It May Not Get You Promoted

Article main image
Jul 29, 2011

Look out HR leaders – this one is going to sting a little – from the Harvard Business Review:

In management, fairness is a virtue. Numerous academic studies have shown that the most effective leaders are generally those who give employees a voice, treat them with dignity and consistency, and base decisions on accurate and complete information.

But there’s a hidden cost to this behavior. We’ve found that although fair managers earn respect, they’re seen as less powerful than other managers — less in control of resources, less able to reward and punish — and that may hurt their odds of attaining certain key, contentious leadership roles.”

Wow, that really flies in the face of all that we’ve been taught by our HR heroes, doesn’t it!

Pushing people around may help you advance quicker

Well, not exactly. Just because treating employees fairly and with respect might not get you promoted, it doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do.

That’s a hard pill to swallow thought, right? How many times in your career have you looked at someone who was promoted and said to yourself “how the hell did they get promoted?” It’s usually the leader who is pushing people around, and that no one likes, and then the CEO taps them on the shoulder for the next VP role.

Some more from the HBR article:

We’ve long wondered why managers don’t always behave fairly, because doing so would clearly benefit their organizations: Studies show that the success of change initiatives depends largely on fair implementation. Our research suggests an answer. Managers see respect and power as two mutually exclusive avenues to influence, and many choose the latter. Although this appears to be the more rational choice, it’s not always the correct one — and it poses big risks for organizations.”

Do you know why managers choose “power” over “respect” as a leadership style? It’s easier! I mean way EASIER! Positional power makes your job so much easier to move things through organizations and get things done – but you burn a lot of bridges and relationships on that path.

Building respect and influence takes time

Getting things accomplished through mutual respect and influence can take time, but ultimately, is more rewarding. Time tends to be the big factor with this, though. In today’s organizations we frequently feel pushed by time to get things done – now! – and that “now” tends not to work well with “respect.”

More from HBR:

Companies can benefit from placing more value on fairness when assessing managerial performance. Our early follow-up research suggests that managers whose style is based on respect can gain power. Their path upward may be difficult, but it’s one worth taking, for their company’s sake as well as their own.”

This is the key. Want to build great leaders in your organization? Give them this time to get things done through leading with a style based in respect. Want to get something done tomorrow, and not care about how your employees are getting treated? Let positional power rule the day, and be comfortable with your leaders throwing their weight around the office to get things done.

Let’s face it, this isn’t an all or nothing exclusive thing. We need our leaders to do both – treat employees with respect, and get results quickly. That’s why we have HR!

That is a tough thing to balance, but HR Pros can help leaders accomplish this task.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.