By Ann Latham
May 5, 2011
An employee is dismissed. At one company, anger and fear prevail. At another, there is little disruption.
A new strategy is unveiled. Department shuffling ensues. Titles, offices, responsibilities, and priorities must change. At one company, anger and fear prevail. At another, there is little disruption.
What allows one company to react calmly, while another immediately leaps to anger and fear?
Think about your own experience. When do you accept a situation, as unpleasant as it may be, and when do you become angry?
Have you ever seen a fellow employee dismissed abruptly? One minute he is there doing a great job and the next he is gone without explanation. It is alarming. You suspect an injustice has occurred. If it happens a second time, you are pretty certain things are not on the up and up. You may start worrying about your own fate. Anger and fear are reasonable reactions.
On the other hand, suppose you believe that employee expectations are abundantly clear and that dismissal would only follow an egregious act or ample warning that one’s performance must improve. Suppose you trusted that the decision-makers were always informed and fair. In that case, you might be surprised and grossly disappointed, but you would likely assume that the employee was treated fairly; would understand the need for confidentiality and move on.
What is the difference between acceptance and revolt?
The difference is fair process. When people believe the process is fair, they can accept almost anything, even terrible decisions, and move on. When people believe there is no fair process, they become angry and fearful. Even good decisions can raise the hackles if the process is suspect.
Our democracy itself is an example of a fair process. It may not be perfect, but we know how it is supposed to work, we trust that it mostly works, and we can vote to influence the process and the players if they prove to be uninformed and unfair.
Athletic competitions are another example of fair process at work. We know the referees aren’t perfect, but as long as they appear merely incompetent rather than biased, we forgive them. There are rules and consequences and most players and fans know when a line is crossed.
Smart organizations also maintain a fair process. Whether embarking on major changes or simply managing day-to-day activities, employees exhibit patience and respect as long as they trust the process.
At poorly run organizations, fair process is as rare as good morale, high productivity, excellent service, great quality, growing revenues, and handsome profits. And there is a reason for the correlation. The best employees are not going to stick around if the organization isn’t fair! Nor are existing employees going to feel committed enthused, or forgiving.
So what is fair process? How do you establish a sense of fair play, both on a daily basis and in the face of significant change?
Fair process has four characteristics:
- Rules of the Game In a fair process, people know the “rules of the game,” what to expect, and how to participate. These rules of the game include things such as job expectations, company policies and procedures, decision-making criteria, placement of authority, and communication channels. Some rules are formal, others informal, but people must feel confident that they know how to play the game.
- Transparent Status In a fair process, people know where things stand. They are kept up-to-date on the score and the decisions. They aren’t caught by surprise with decisions that affect them, their colleagues, or the direction of the organization.
- Honest Representation In a fair process, people believe the decision-makers are honest, informed and consistent. They know people make mistakes but they can live with bad decisions as long as they believe the decision-makers, whether referees, politicians, or fellow employees, have the best interests of their teams, citizens, or company in mind. Furthermore, these decision-makers must rely on good and representative information from others. They can’t make blind or random decisions. Trust is critical, not easily gained, but readily lost if people believe their experience and point of view is consciously under-represented.
- Ability to Influence the Process In a fair process, people believe the process itself is always under review and open to improvement. Rules, laws, and policies can be changed as needed. Referees are fired, politicians are voted out of office, and ineffective managers are reviewed. Teams, citizens, and employees must believe they can influence the system for the better. They need to know how to register their discontent, appeal a decision, and make suggestions. And they need to believe they are taken seriously.
Most of the time, when we watch our teams, candidates, and preferences lose, we grimace and move on.
But we all remember times when our democracy or a sporting event seemed unfair. We become rightfully angry when the referee seems biased or when the Supreme Court decides the outcome of a Presidential election. When we get angry or fearful, one or more of the characteristics of a fair process has failed us.
When this happens in an organization, employees check out, either mentally or physically. Once you’ve lost their respect, confidence, and commitment, it is an enormous task to win it back.
Belief in the existence of fair process at work is the difference between healthy companies and angry companies.
The most obvious situations demanding fair process include all personnel decisions (e.g., hiring, firing, promoting, paying) and significant organizational changes. But that is just a start. A lot of turmoil is created in organizations because regular, day-to-day decisions violate the basic characteristics of fair process.
Clear expectations are paramount. Honest feedback is essential. Informed and fair assessments are critical. Opportunities to influence the system in the face of perceived inequities or uninformed decisions are critical.
Do your employees believe fair process is the norm in your company?
If you understand and embrace the importance of fair process, it becomes second nature. If not, you are likely to be leading one of those organizations that gets angry and fearful on a regular basis. Once you begin operating in that mode, it takes a tremendous effort to gain the trust of your employees. Don’t wait to create this sense of fairness or to rectify a situation found lacking.
Ann Latham is president of Uncommon Clarity Inc. She creates clarity as a consultant for corporate giants like Hitachi and Boeing who want better results faster. She does it as a writer for thousands worldwide who have discovered great value in her newsletter, articles, books, and comments in publications such as The New York Times, Forbes, BusinessWeek, and Inc. Visit www.UncommonClarity.com for more information.