Mind of the Manager

What works and what doesn't in the workplace

The Fairness Flaw: Why 'Fair' Managers Often Falter

It's hard to gain both respect and power.

Is it possible that demonstrating too much fairness – one would assume a foundational quality of good management – might be working against business leaders in their careers? That disturbing thought was the intriguing conclusion of a study I recently happened across in Harvard Business Review.

The central point in HBR’s “Why Fair Bosses Fall Behind,” by Batia Wiesenfeld, Naomi Rothman, Sara Wheeler-Smith and Adam Galinsky, was that managers who were highly regarded for being fair often lost out to others perceived as less fair but more powerful. Full disclosure: This is not a new study; it was published in July 2011. But I’d never seen it, or anything like it, before. And having just retired from the corporate world last year, it intuitively resonated with me. When I thought back to a number of instances over the course of a long career… why certain individuals advanced and other more respected ones didn’t… it felt like this subtle dynamic might well have been part of these situations.

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“We’ve found that although fair managers earn respect, they’re seen as less powerful than other managers,” the HBR article noted, “less in control of resources, less able to reward and punish – and that may hurt their odds of attaining certain key, contentious leadership roles.”

The research included both laboratory situations and responses from corporate decision makers and employees.

“Can you have respect and power? We found that it’s hard to gain both,” the article stated. “Managers see respect and power as two mutually exclusive avenues to influence, and many choose the latter.”

Though it’s hard for me to envision the choice as often being that quite crystal clear, even the possibility does raise provocative questions. Consider the possible connection to employee engagement. Having just left corporate life and having researched and written a number of articles over the past year related to employee engagement, it’s clear to me that widespread lack of engagement is a costly, substantive problem.

A recent Dale Carnegie national study on employee engagement, for example, showed that only 29% of employees were “highly engaged” (management code for highly productive). In other words, over 70% of employees are likely not working at full productive capacity – a statistic that should concern managements everywhere. There naturally are many reasons for this – financial pressures, layoffs, benefit cuts, reorganizations, etc. - but given the always central importance of the manager-employee relationship, I’d suggest that companies concerned about an epidemic of employee disengagement give thought to this Harvard Business Review study.

If significant numbers of “fair” (i.e. respected and well-liked) managers are routinely losing out to powerful managers who are “less fair” (i.e. controlling and less well-liked), what does that say about the implications for how productively employees will work in a potentially “less fair” environment?

Are we mistaking aggressiveness for effectiveness?

Are we mistaking and control for competence?

Are we picking the right leaders for the right reasons?

At the very least, these are questions that thoughtful chief executives, boards of directors, and HR departments – especially in organizations with chronically disengaged work forces – should be asking.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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