How Fairness Kills Teamwork

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

I frequently meet laudable managers aspiring to treat their people fairly. In our politically-correct workplaces, we send the message that fairness is essential. Like so many aspects of effective management, this concept can be applied poorly. The simple fact is that fairness often destroys teamwork and businesses.

Sometimes fairness ensures everyone shares in a pleasant task. One owner with whom I worked realized his sales team enjoyed the perquisites of conventions and rotated their participation equally. Rather than sending the best salespeople, everyone got their turn. These trips became holidays instead of sales ventures. Is it any wonder convention sales kept falling?

Unpleasant tasks are also doled out equitably. Everyone gets their turn at the customer service desk or cleaning. Workers are expected to meet identical production quotas. These are misapplications of fairness. The goal should be to assign the people best suited for those situations and allow them to shine. Some people live for customer interaction, but the job has become drudgery because they are too constrained. Cleaning tasks are a great chance for everyone to work on a simple project together, instead of rotating duties. More adept production workers quickly meet their quota and then recreate, while other workers do a poor job to catch up.

On a football team, each player has a role they own. So long as rules are obeyed and goals are achieved, players have a great deal of freedom. Offensive linemen buy the quarterback time. Wide receivers catch or draw coverage away from the play. Quarterbacks read defenses and call audibles. When playing against teams with weak run defenses, running backs see extra playing time. When playing against poor pass defenders, receivers see additional playing time. Players not directly involved in the play do not head for the sidelines. All eleven men play every down. Players further down on the roster suit up every game and are expected to be ready to support their team. The team finishes when the game is over and not before. No supervisors are ensuring each player pulls their weight. Players identify mistakes and motivate each other during the game. During post-game, the coaches review the tape and meet with players to analyze where to make changes.

In business, teamwork is often confused with fairness. If sales conventions are for sales, send the best. In customer service, allow the best person the freedom to help. Do not tolerate abusive customers because teams demand respect for one another. With maintenance, everyone works until the work completes. With production, those who meet their quota quickly teach the less productive how to improve. When the goal is reached, everyone's work is done, not before. If one person is working, everyone is working.

Non-profit organizations exemplify this concept with volunteers finishing a task, then starting completely different tasks. Non-profits tend to be very goal-oriented. No one says, "That's not my job." Conversely, for-profit organizations rarely share a common goal. For-profit staff frequently focus on obeying the rules, not rocking the boat, or keeping one's head down. Management has one goal, while the workers have another.

This week's assignment is to ask your people to identify their mission or goal. Ask them to specify what their team is working to accomplish. It always amazes me how rarely this question is answered accurately, let alone honestly. Business is a team sport, and teams are not fair.