“Sheila is pissed at me,” he said. “She wants me to intervene on her behalf, but I’m not going there. She has to figure out how to fight this fight without me hand holding her.” Then he went on, “But I tell you, it’s bothering me that she’s disappointed and pissed at me!”
You can relate, right? He hates being perceived as unfair. It reminds me (for a second time in a week) of Abraham Lincoln saying, “You can please some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time.” You can’t avoid displeasing someone, especially direct reports, and then they’ll think you’re not being fair.
Fairness, if you think about it, is self-focused. When I don’t get my way, or if I think I got less than someone else, or if I feel like I’m not part of the in-group, that all feels unfair. The common thread is “I,” how this affects me. And since it’s impossible to please all the people all the time, you’ll be perceived as unfair and, inevitably, you will disappoint.
I’m not being pessimistic, I’m realistic. As a leader you run into the issue of fairness whether you’re redrawing the org chart, finalizing a budget, planning a novel project, or posting a new role. Your decisions take into account different teams, people, scenarios, and opportunities, and how they affect and balance one another. Other folks don’t realize all the variables of your decision, and somebody will be disappointed by your decision. Trying to not disappoint anyone is a quixotic effort destined to fail.
Of course, try to treat everyone equally, but it’s hard to apply this flawlessly. It’s hard because people behave differently, then you respond differently, and then you appear inconsistent (often for reasons that other people don’t know). So you will disappoint.
Even when you set clear rules and work to apply them consistently across the board, you’ll disappoint. Because there are times when you choose to bend the rules, sometimes even break them for a greater cause. And then someone will feel that you’re unfair, and you will disappoint.
Here’s my point: while normal folks hate to disappoint, you have to accept that you will disappoint.
There are a few effective ways to minimize disappointing: communicate effectively, share context for your decisions, work to rise above your bias and prejudices, and heartfully apologize when it’s appropriate. You’ll also do well to give people heads up before you make changes, involve people in a decision before you conclude it, and if you bend a rule, give your reasoning.
But mostly, if you know you’re going to disappoint, and you’ve done everything in your power to reset expectations, don’t shutter your heart. Don’t use distance as a way to allay your own guilt or sadness. Stay present with the humans around you. Be that leader to others that you may have not had for yourself. Be emotionally intelligent enough to live in the land of both/and – feel your frustration and guilt, AND stay connected and caring.