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Dare to be Fair – The Secret to Awesome Leadership?

March 2, 2018


Whilst at the helm of GE, Jack Welch would famously slice the bottom 10% of managers each year. Apple openly charge consumers high prices, generating enormous margins. In most organisations men are paid more than women for equivalent work. Surely the key to success in business is profit, but it seems that profit comes from treating some people unfairly?

In an inspiring TED talk, former investment banker Marco Alvera tells the story of his experience when moving to a state owned Italian Oil Company. A workplace that appeared ‘soft’ on staff, assuring jobs for life, little or no consequences for failed projects and fixed salaries.

Rather than failing and relying on government bailouts Marco found his team of 3000 to be dedicated, loyal, willing to take risks and considerably less stressed than those he led in the investment bank.

He has found that a commitment to fairness drives:

  • Higher levels of engagement
  • Honest and open communication
  • Constant motivation
  • Low stress

Marco talks about how the experience of being treated unfairly kick starts a chemical reaction, comparable with physical pain. Our primitive response is to regard unfair treatment as a threat and to respond accordingly. That impolite colleague, greedy supplier or biased boss immediately becomes an enemy in our subconscious. Our inner voice makes negative assumptions and begins to see plots and subterfuge.

Whereas when we believe we are being treated fairly, trust increases, and time is saved as we don’t apply so many unnecessary checks and balances. Our own behaviour is more generous, considerate and fair.

HR leaders like to talk about desired behaviours in organisations. Management courses, recruitment strategies and internal communications are built around these corporate behaviours. It could be argued that in an organisation where unfairness is tolerated it’s unlikely that these positive, desirable behaviours will ever be sustained.

Simply by seeking to remove unfairness and promote fairness, the culture of a team or the entire organisation can change for the better. Try some of these approaches in your team and see if it helps:

  • Value effort not outcome
  • Eliminate politics
  • Filter out unfairness
  • Be aware of own biases
  • Listen to everyone – radical transparency
  • Reconsider hierarchy, pricing and discipline
  • Take risks if they are fair
  • Always seek the truth
  • Encourage mistakes
  • Promote unqualified candidates
  • Give away resources if it feels right, without seeking a quantifiable return on investment
  • Allow these behaviours to spread naturally from one team across the organisation

As you embrace these approaches Marco believes you will

  • Create outstanding teamwork
  • Motivate individuals to make more significant contributions
  • Increase innovation
  • Retain great talent
  • Reduce stress

And unlike a bonus payment the effect is constant.

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