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BEING FAIR IN AN UNFAIR WORLD

April 20, 2009

Look under. Look over. Look up. Look down. Look around. What do you see? All around us, we find unfairness. We live with it at home, work, play, school…everywhere. Life is never fair. Regardless of who we are or what we do, unfairness finds us-it does not discriminate.Here’s why. The free choices that we make affect not just us but others. Their choices do the same. Then add randomness and uncertainty into the system, and the world becomes very unpredictable. That’s simply how our universe works. However, while this presents immeasurable difficulties it also creates an interesting and challenging place to live.

Doing all the right things, only to have an unforeseen event affect the outcome is frustrating. Having to abide by leaders who have no business leading is demoralizing. Being born to lousy parents is a cruel twist of fate. Never seeming to find the “right” person to spend one’s life with is tragic. Being betrayed by someone you trusted can make your blood boil. All of these situations are examples of life’s unfairness. It’s true that we can never completely eliminate unfairness, but we certainly can do our part to minimize its impact.

Counseling others to accept that life is unfair is a role all leaders need to play. Much of the frustration at work has unfairness at its core. When we begin to take these things personally, we lose objectivity and risk making poor decisions. Wasting time brooding about untenable situations adds no value. Let the competition do that, to their own detriment. We must instead learn from the experience and forge ahead. Helping others to accept that life is unfair, and moving forward anyway, is one of the most important gifts a leader can give.

There are many examples of unfairness in the workplace. Some are more obvious than others. One all too common example is friendships between a supervisor and a subordinate. If the supervisor has many reports but socializes with one or two, he or she has created a scenario ripe for unfairness. Yes, we make friends with people we work with. However, it is up to the supervisor to take extraordinary steps to be sure all other associates know there is no favoritism. Ideally this situation doesn’t arise but if it does it takes very special handling. Taking vacations together or coming in late to work after playing a tennis match are actual examples I’ve witnessed of inappropriate behavior. I use this example because the participants had no ill intentions but were simply guilty of not paying attention to the impact of their actions. We must always be on guard against creating situations that could be perceived as being unfair.

Each of us must do our part to add a dose of fairness to the world. Treating others with respect, being generous with our time and counsel, respecting diversity, recognizing achievements-small and large, being consistent, not playing favorites, not abusing our power and privilege, being calm and reasonable, and focusing on the facts all serve to make the world a bit more fair. These are learned behaviors that we control. Practicing and teaching these values is good for us on a personal level but also makes the organization and the world a better place.

The world is by nature unfair. This doesn’t mean we have to be.