Treating employees fairly is an important but vexing issue in organizations. Employees who feel fairly treated are better performers, more helpful colleagues, more committed to their workgroups, more likely to act with integrity and treat others with greater civility.
Yet, despite recognizing the many benefits of treating employees fairly, leaders often end up treating them unfairly, possibly without intending to or even realizing they did so. We often think of such leaders as thoughtless, inconsiderate, self-centered, lazy or even just mean. Instead, we argue that even well-meaning and diligent leaders may fail to act fairly because doing so is challenging, even under the best conditions. The reality is that the conditions most leaders face are far from perfect.
Our most recent work, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, highlights two types of challenges often overlooked when thinking about fair treatment from the point of view of leaders: limited attention and limited information. We also identify feedback seeking as a powerful tool to overcome these twin challenges. Extensive research has documented that those who seek feedback tend to be better performers and have higher quality relationships.
Challenges to Fair Treatment
Even though most leaders desire to act fairly, fairness is not always on leaders’ minds. This occurs because leaders are typically under time pressures or focused on immediate task requirements. As a result, they are often oblivious to the need to consider fairness. For example, because they focus on meeting higher priority demands, leaders may forget to or only cursorily recognize an employee’s contributions. Their focus may also blindside them to how inequitably they are responding to people. For example, Stanford management professor Bob Sutton provides an example of a CEO unwittingly interrupting each of his female vice presidents during a meeting six times, while never interrupting any of the male vice presidents.
Even when leaders do notice or pay attention to fairness issues, they may lack sufficient information about employees’ preferences. After all, fairness is inherently subjective. For instance, imagine a leader who may not realize that in assigning a challenging assignment to an employee as a recognition of their superior skills, that the employee may view this as an unfair addition to their workload. Alternatively, leaders may be in the dark about employees’ preferences for appreciation; for example, verbally acknowledge an employee’s contribution during a team meeting, whereas this person may have been expecting a more tangible recognition. Similarly, a leader may tease an employee, intending to signal to the employee that he belongs to the group, not knowing that the employee (and possibly his colleagues) interprets this action as bullying or criticism and thus feels unfairly treated.
Overcoming Challenges With Feedback Seeking
A possible solution to both these challenges is feedback. Our nuanced modification of the familiar management adage “what gets measured gets managed,” would be “what gets feedback gets managed.” After all, feedback is not only likely to draw attention it also provides information that might be missing in context. In the example of the interrupting CEO mentioned above, change occurred after the female vice presidents pointed out the imbalanced behavior to their CEO.
However, extensive research finds that employees do not tend to communicate feedback, especially upwards. Instead, they prefer to remain silent, especially when it comes to perceived unfairness. In fact, unfairness often persists precisely because employees choose to remain silent. Thus, leaders often operate in a vacuum of information, remaining ignorant of their own shortcomings.
Given this conundrum, we reasoned that leaders who are most proactive in frequently seeking feedback from their employees are also likely to act more fairly towards them. In seeking feedback, leaders actively and deliberately take steps to ensure that they understand the impact of their actions. This involves seeking diagnostic information about performance shortfalls and areas for improvement.
Our thesis was that by soliciting feedback about their behaviors and actions, leaders signal their openness and willingness to engage with critiques of their own performance. As a result, when leaders do behave unfairly, employees are more likely to point this out, whether directly asked to or not. Employees are then also more likely to point out unfair behaviors of the leader towards others in the team.
Tying it back to the two challenges of attention and information, we reasoned that leaders who more frequently seek employees’ feedback would report that fairness considerations were more often on their mind. Consequently, they would attend to fairness issues even when enmeshed in other responsibilities. Moreover, we believed that leaders who more frequently seek employees’ feedback would regularly gain insights about how they can appropriately address employees’ concerns about fairness violations. In this way, leaders who seek feedback learn how to best enact fairness in ways that avoid injustice prior to future violations. For example, “the last time I provided her a challenging assignment, she felt it was an unfair imposition. So I had better explain that this intended as a developmental experience so that she doesn’t feel unfairly treated this time.”
We tested these ideas with leaders from wide variety of industries and occupations across three separate studies: (a) with a matched sample of over 8,706 global leaders and 40,830 employees that completed surveys as part of a leadership development program, (b) with 181 American leader-subordinate pairs; and (c) with 196 American leaders across a three-month period.
Our findings suggested that leaders who more frequently sought feedback from employees were significantly more likely to report acting fairly towards employees and be seen as acting fairly by their employee. Such leaders also reported spending more time on activities related to fairness (e.g., explaining the logic of decisions and gathering all relevant information before making decisions). The leaders who more frequently sought feedback also reported holding explicit goals to act fairly, indicating heighted awareness to fairness matters. Finally, these leaders also indicated that they learned more about employees’ needs and preferences during the study period, as compared with those who sought feedback less frequently.
How to Seek Feedback
- Recognize that leaders often operate in an awareness and informational vacuum. Don’t assume that employees will typically tell leaders about their fairness concerns.
- Encourage leaders to seek feedback regularly and frequently. They should explicitly tell employees they are interested in learning about how their behaviors affect their performance. They should ask about specific actions and decisions to find out whether employees view them as fair or prefer different procedures.
- Signal that asking employees for feedback is a desired and worthwhile activity for leaders throughout the organization. When leaders ask for feedback, they should act on what they learn, if possible, or at least show honest consideration of their input. Asking for feedback and then ignoring it without an explanation will create more harm than good.
- Provide educational experiences on how to solicit and respond to employee feedback. Reinforce the desirability of feedback seeking by recognizing leaders who engage in this behavior. Have senior managers be role models of feedback seeking as a desired characteristic of organizational culture.
- Check with leaders and employees about the adequacy of the feedback channels available to them. Removing barriers and creating cultural and technological infrastructure that supports upward feedback from employees to leaders will facilitate timely flow of information.