Pretty much everybody wants to think of themselves as being a fair person – and for those of you who lead – fair leaders. Sure – we may not always get it perfectly right, but in general, we tend to believe we’re fair. However, we may often NOT be fair – and we don’t even realize it. So, how can this happen, and does it really matter?
In our recently published research at the Academy of Management Journal, my colleagues and I find that being busy can unintentionally get in the way of being fair. In short, faced with juggling multiple responsibilities, acting fairly often falls by the wayside. So maybe your busy boss isn’t a complete jerk after all (though they might be) – maybe part of it is situational.
A key reason that being busy gets in the way of being fair is that acting fairly is hard work. It’s not something that comes effortlessly. Fairness is not one simple choice but involves a series of steps and calculations that take time and deliberate effort. Managers have to take time to consult with employees and understand their issues, and collect and weigh numerous pieces of information about the situation at hand. They not only have to ensure that employees are equitably rewarded for their efforts and contributions, they also have to determine these rewards by adopting transparent and clear procedures. Then they have to explain their procedures and decisions to their employees in a timely fashion, making sure to treat employees with dignity and respect when doing so.
All this means that acting fairly takes time and effort, two personal resources that busy managers dealing with multiple demands simply don’t have enough of. Moreover, organizations often evaluate leaders on their performance on core work tasks such as hitting sales targets, meeting budgets and timelines, and delivering on production targets. As a result, when push comes to shove, managers prioritize their efforts on task-related activities that facilitate meeting targets and deadlines over treating employees fairly.
However, there are two silver linings to our findings regarding overworked managers. First, in those organizations that valued fairness and rewarded managers for acting fairly, even busy managers still treated employees fairly. So sending a message that an organization cares about fairness really can shift the focus of managers. Second, and equally noteworthy, we found that in such organizations, being fair doesn’t compromise managers’ performance on their core work tasks.
Our research suggests that rather than placing all the blame on managers for acting unfairly, part of the solution involves organizations intentionally promoting fairness. We recognize that asking organizations to reduce manager workload may not be a practical suggestion in today’s competitive environment. Yet, organizations may be able to get managers to pay attention to fairness by explicitly rewarding them for acting fairly towards their employees.
For leaders who want to treat their employees fairly, our research suggests that being mindful about workload matters. Because core work tasks compete with spending time and effort on acting fairly, finding ways to ensure that busier times don’t derail your ability to pay attention to treating employees fairly is critical. For instance, blocking off time in your calendar to spend time on employee fairness related concerns could shield fairness from other competing demands. Doing so, according to our findings, means that leaders can gain the benefits of acting fairly without compromising performance on core work tasks.
About the writer
Ravi Gajendran is an affiliated faculty member of the Center for Leadership at FIU and an Associate Professor in the Department of Global Leadership and Management at Florida International University. Prior to joining FIU, Dr. Gajendran was a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Dr. Gajendran at FIU conducted this research with colleagues Dr. Elad Sherf from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr. Vijaya Venkataramani at University of Maryland.