September 2011 Newsletter

Myth: Treating Employess Equally Means Treating Them Fairly

September 2011 Image

“That’s not fair!” How many times do you remember saying that as a kid? How many times do you still think it in your head as an adult? Our sense of what is fair and unfair develops at a very young age. When someone gets a bigger piece of pie or more turns at bat, we feel that their special treatment is unfair.

So, how are we taught to make it fair? We make sure everyone’s slice of pie is the same size and that everyone gets the same number of turns to play. There. Problem solved. To be fair, whether at the bakery, on the baseball mound or in the board room, individuals have to be treated equally, right? Wrong!

Now, before you think I am advocating discrimination and favoritism, let me explain. There is a critical difference between being treated equally and being treated fairly. And experience has taught me that misunderstanding (or, we could say, “myth”understanding) the difference between the two alienates employees and keeps managers from growing into effective leaders.

So what is the difference between “equally” and “fairly?” Treating people equally means treating them exactly the same way, regardless of any quantifiable differences between them. If you have been to a little league baseball tournament recently, you would have seen an example of this when the coach handed each child the same trophy at the end of the game, whether they scored three runs, sat on the bench, or never showed up for practice. The coach treated them all equally. But would you say that he treated them fairly?

Unlike coaching a children’s baseball team with trophies for all, leading a management team by treating employees equally (aka the same) ends up with virtually no one happy. Managers drive themselves crazy trying to meet an unrealistic standard of equity, while their employees become more and more disengaged because their unique contributions to the team are treated the same as everyone else’s. As Joe Kraus, founder of Web portal Excite.com described, “Nothing demotivates people like the equal treatment of unequals.” “Nothing demotivates people like the equal treatment of unequals.”

Treating people fairly is actually the opposite of treating them equally. It means treating them in a way that takes into consideration their unique differences.


Being a successful, well respected leader requires a willingness to recognize and leverage each employee’s strengths, weaknesses, work habits and motivational drivers. Authentic leadership is personal, not packaged. It cannot (and should not) be doled out to employees in equal parts. To try and do so is not only impossible, it is, well, just not fair!

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