Many leaders will have been to enough development courses to know that fairness and responsibility are the basic building blocks of leadership integrity and trust*. Indeed, the importance of these issues is made most clear in situations when they are absent. If you think of the impact of the 2007 financial crisis or the Enron scandal, then it will become clear what Lewis Garrad means.

While senior leaders are easily convinced to pay attention to the risks that come from losing sight of responsible business practices (and hence frequently embed them in governance process), many overlook the substantial benefits that come from building management cultures which focus on fundamental fairness, respect and responsibility. Indeed, Sirota’s own research has found that a sense of equity is the bedrock on which employee motivation and commitment is built. Without it, people quickly lose enthusiasm for what they do.

While much of this seems obvious, it’s easy to point to many HR or management processes that fail to help leaders achieve the levels of fairness that employees expect. As I have noted elsewhere, people-management practices are heavily influenced by subjective judgement and personal experience which are frequently out of sync with what psychology would suggest is effective. The result is often disappointment for the leader and demotivation for employees.

If leaders and managers really want to take fairness and responsibility seriously, then they need to be prepared to address the gap between what they do and what actually works. So, with that in mind here are three areas which leaders can focus on to close the gap:

Performance Management

While it has become very popular to complain about the issues surrounding performance management, much of the recent debate misses a key point: employees rarely see the performance process as fair and therefore find it demotivating. The reasons for this are that ratings are often assigned in biased ways (for example how likable the person is) or against goals that were unlikely to really motivate performance in the first place. In addition, managers often equate performance to potential (even though this is a mistake) which means that they will lose interest in someone who they do not like or who has a one-off dip. This starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as employees receiving low ratings mentally “check out” when they realise that they are unlikely to be able to progress, and managers start to invest less time in them; this is hardly a method for improving performance or developing people. Acknowledging these issues and training managers to deal with them is the first step to strengthening how performance is really managed.

Promoting people

The type of people who are promoted into more senior positions sends a clear message to employees about what the organisation really values in its people. The trouble is promotion is usually a highly political process which is handled with very little transparency. This often leaves ambitious employees wondering what criteria they need to meet in order to progress. When performance is used as a proxy for potential it’s also more likely that strong individual contributors or slick networkers will be moved into management roles, only to experience challenges with engaging others or building a strong sense of team cohesion. This often leaves employees feeling that there is a disconnect between what the organisation wants and what it gets. It’s therefore extremely beneficial to consider the science of potential and leadership when making promotion decisions, especially in Asian cultures where successful leadership requires specific characteristics such as humility, or where the leader needs to address a specific business challenge, like innovation.

Engaging employees

While the science of motivation is well developed, it’s common to find that many leaders have developed their own theories about what people want from work. The challenge is that these most often reflect unique values and personality characteristics of the leader – a reflection of what they want for themselves. For example, a highly ambitious and power-driven leader might focus on the importance of reward and progression while a highly agreeable and relationship-driven leader might focus on social cohesion and team harmony. Clearly, employees more similar to the leader are more likely to feel that they fit in while those who are different end up feeling unappreciated and less valued. In fact, research tells us that people come to work with a fairly consistent set of core needs (to achieve something meaningful, to work in collaboration with others, to be fairly treated) but those needs can be expressed in ways that are unique to each person’s values. The role of the leader then is to ensure that employees can meet core employee needs while valuing the unique ways they can be expressed.

In conclusion

While fair and responsible leadership is a key governance issue for many organisations, it’s often not taken far enough. Employee motivation and engagement are strongly influenced by a sense of fairness yet many management processes and practices leave employees feeling unfairly treated and disillusioned.  As organisations adopt more digital tools, the opportunity to use more data-driven and evidence-based approaches to drive effective people management are increasing. However, unless leadership is willing to start thinking in a more evidence based way, progress will be limited.