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Fairness Organizational Leadership

Why Fairness is an Underrated Organizational Leadership Principle

How often do we hear the expression– “that’s not fair”?

You probably use the expression yourself. Maybe regularly. Perhaps you even used it today.

Let’s face it, fairness is really important to us.  The idea of fairness is so pervasive and fundamental that the Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward (1915-1985) once claimed that “Fairness is what justice really is.”  (The American Philosopher John Rawls would agree—justice is fairness. But more on that in a moment.)

I think the principle of fairness is widely under-appreciated in leadership, if not also undervalued. If you want to be an effective and ethical organizational leader, then I have some advice for you: be fair. In fact, this might be the most important thing you can do.

Think about it. Have you ever been the victim of unfairness? How did it make you feel? Most likely, you felt betrayed or violated or wronged or maybe all of the above.

Have you ever witnessed the injustice of unfairness in society or seen its harmful effects at work in an organization? If you have, then you know that the aftermath of unfairness is almost always devastating.

Any aspiring and inspiring organizational leader would be wise to heed the time honored moral principle of fairness. There are at least three reasons why leaders should take this admonition to heart.

1. Fairness encourages other ethical considerations.

The influential moral and political philosopher John Rawls thought that fairness was the essence of morality.

In his landmark book A Theory of Justice (1971), he describes moral justice as fairness.

In an attempt to foster a mindful consideration of social fairness, Rawls famously introduces a thought experiment called the Veil of Ignorance. The thought experiment works something like this: when thinking about ethical concerns in society we should start from behind a veil of ignorance.

In other words, we should not consider any particular features of our self; not our race, religious affiliations, gender, bank account balance, political allegiances, whether we are a leader, follower or the like. Rather, we should think of ourselves only as an ethically rational individual with self-interests like anyone else.

By thinking behind a veil of ignorance, my own biases or privileges or preferences are less likely to blind me to what is also right for others. In short, standing behind a veil of ignorance will help promote being fair and in turn encourage other important ethical considerations.

A veil of ignorance makes leaders less likely to be blind to what is also right for others. Click To Tweet

This leads to a second important outcome of fairness.

2. Fairness encourages an ethical culture.

I challenge leaders to put themselves behind a veil of ignorance from time to time.

Try to not think of yourself as a person of influence or “the leader.”

Consider the organization from the perspective of an unprivileged point of view. Imagine that you are not toward the top, but, instead, you are an average employee.

What would you think of the organization?

Behind a veil of ignorance, for example, we would consider the following:

  • Are our organization’s policies fair and impartial?
  • Is everyone recognized for their accomplishments?
  • Does every employee receive equal respect?
  • Are decisions handled transparently?
  • Is everyone’s voice acknowledged and appreciated?
  • Is there a fair appeals process for complaints?
  • Is compensation allocated justly?
  • Are promotions and opportunities for advancement feasible for every qualified employee?

Putting ourselves behind a veil of ignorance allows us to promote a more ethically sensitive culture.

The payoff is that considering and modeling an attitude of fairness in your organization will promote a much more ethically minded workforce and workplace.

This is best for everyone.

Seeing behind a 'veil of ignorance' allows us to promote an ethically sensitive company culture. Click To Tweet

3. Fairness encourages ethical change.

While unfairness in leadership fosters discord, fair leadership inspires positive changes.

In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Business Ethics, authors Elaine Bacha and Sandra Walker studied the relationship between leadership and fairness.

Their research showed that there is a strong, measurable association between transformational leadership and fairness.

Oliver Balch has an excellent article in the Guardian discussing this research and “the strong correlation between fair leadership and inspiring change.”

The leaders that inspire the most change in their followers are those leaders who consistently model the principle of fairness. It appears that fairness is the door that opens up to positive organizational change. To be effective, however, fairness must be modeled from the top-down.

Fairness is the door that opens up to positive organizational change. Click To Tweet

By now, I hope the take-away is clear, morally improving the ethos of any organization begins with a simple, yet powerful moral directive: be fair.

Now, over to you.

Have you experienced unfair leadership? Do you try to see things behind a veil of ignorance?

Tell us your experience with fairness in leadership in the comments below!

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Jeffrey Cervantez

Jeffrey Cervantez

Jeffrey Cervantez, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, CA. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics from Biola University. His areas of focus, as an educator, are in logic, critical thinking, ethics, bioethics, social justice issues, philosophy and religion. As a scholar, he has published articles in journals and books on topics in ethics, political philosophy and religion. In addition to teaching and writing, he has done volunteer work as a clinical ethicist and chaplain.

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Jeffrey Cervantez

Jeffrey Cervantez

Jeffrey Cervantez, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, CA. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics from Biola University. His areas of focus, as an educator, are in logic, critical thinking, ethics, bioethics, social justice issues, philosophy and religion. As a scholar, he has published articles in journals and books on topics in ethics, political philosophy and religion. In addition to teaching and writing, he has done volunteer work as a clinical ethicist and chaplain.

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