It’s Not Fair! Three Ways to Combat Unfairness (Managerial Courage)


“But it’s not fair!”

Have you ever heard that from someone on your staff or from a frustrated colleague? At one time or another, everyone has felt the pangs of unfairness.  There’s a reason for that. The brain is wired to easily detect and react to perceptions of unfairness.

Your brain constantly scans the environment and compares its observations to what it expects. If the situation it encounters is similar enough to those expectations, the brain feels safe and comfortable. If the brain senses something it perceives as unfair, alarm bells go off and so does the threat center in the brain.  And the bad news is that the brain will sense unfairness more easily than it senses fairness.  I know, that’s not fair, but it’s how the brain works.  So, let’s consider what you can do to keep the brain happy and productive.

Explain the rationale. Work is a busy place. You make decisions all day every day. It may not occur to you to slow down and explain the basis of decisions – particularly personnel decisions. In my office, perceptions of unfairness showed up in the application of policies such as flexible work schedules, teleworking privileges and who was chosen to attend conferences and training.  “It’s not fair! He went last year.”  “It’s not fair. Why can’t I telework, too?” In those moments, I realized the importance of explaining the rationale in my head.  And that means there must be a rationale in your head (more on that next). It helps to share your interpretation of personnel policies with the entire team. They might not agree but at least they know there is a logical thought process working in the background.  Have you taken the time out of a busy work day to explain the rationale behind your decisions? It will help your staff understand and will reduce the feelings of unfairness.

Challenge your reasoning. You can’t explain your rationale if you don’t have a rationale. It is instructive to try out several different scenarios.  For example, on one hand, you may be completely comfortable allowing Herb to telework but you’re not comfortable allowing Joanne to telework.  Okay…what’s the difference? Challenge your own reasoning.  Is it that you trust Herb but not Joanne?  If so, what gives you that feeling?  Unintended bias can come into play, too. Maybe you’ve known Herb for longer or he’s a buddy.  Joanne has a different approach to work that feels unfamiliar to you.  Challenge your own thinking.  Is your closeness with Herb influencing your decision? Whatever your own situation, work through your own reasoning to ensure that you really are being fair.

Listen and validate. When a person’s internal alarm bells go off, they may not be articulate in a reasonable way. They want (need) to vent, to express their frustration, to vocalize their displeasure.  Let them. Your job is to listen and validate the feelings.  Validation doesn’t mean agreement but it does mean truly hearing their complaint and their feelings around it. If you’ve thought through your position clearly and honestly, you can remain calm and centered as they vent. Put yourself in their shoes.  Repeat back the situation from their perspective which ensures that you truly understand. That will help create a calmer environment. The important thing is that staff know they will get a “fair” hearing.

Not every situation can be fair, but with these skills, you help the brain move past its sense of unfairness, deactivate the threat response and move on in a productive way.

Named by Inc. as one of the top 100 leadership speakers, Shelley Row, P.E., is an engineer and former government and association executive. Shelley’s leadership work focuses on developing insightful leaders who can see beyond the data. Her work grows your bottom-line through enhanced decision-making, motivation and teaming. Learn more at