Picture a parent, a leader in their own right, who has just made a grilled cheese sandwich for their two kids. The parent tells one kid that they get to cut the sandwich in two pieces however they want.

Before they do that though, the parent says that the second kid gets to choose their piece first.

The first child is motivated to cut the sandwich in half as equally as possible. Unfortunately, the real world does not offer such a simple process when promoting fairness in a decision.

However, there is a way to simplify any situation to instill fairness. This is grounded in a leader’s desire to be fair, which must be broken down first.

Deciding to Be Fair

As a leader, you have to actively decide to be fair. This decision has multiple layers that must each be recognized and dealt with to ensure a fair outcome.

The primary influencing layer is your definition of fairness. Assuming you have a general definition, it should speak to impartiality, or the absence of favoritism.

It’s a good idea to write this definition down. Don’t be afraid to ask others you trust and admire, like a mentor, for help creating this definition. The more detailed it is, the more likely you are to stick with it.

As you gain experience, you may find areas you wish to update.

This brings us to the second layer, which includes your own biases and inclinations to discriminate. This is where most readers will say, “I don’t discriminate; I have no biases!”

Unfortunately, if you have consciousness, you have biases. What’s more, you are most likely subject to a bias blind spot, which means you’re less likely to notice your own biases versus those in others.

Consider it a condition of your leadership. To become stronger, you need to know where you are weak. There are tests that help determine hidden bias, but rest assured that if you’re searching inwardly, you’ve already taken the first step.

The last layer is where it all comes together. It involves the consideration, or lack thereof, given to the various aspects of any situation.

There is a thought experiment created by the late philosopher, John Rawls, called the veil of ignorance. It asks an individual to decide what rules and systems they would put in place if everything were to start over, wherein they know essential facts but have no knowledge of the people who would be involved.

Put another way, you can decide what roles should be created, but not who will fill them. It is a chance to consider only what is necessary to make a decision.

With these considerations in mind, this 4-step process can be used in any situation in which you want to ensure a fair and less-biased outcome:

1. Acknowledge

It is necessary to first recognize what factors are involved in this decision that will affect you. Standing behind a veil of ignorance is merely a thought experiment.

But in real life, people have a hard time completely removing those biases. By seeking them out and acknowledging them, you take away some of the power they hold over you.

In the interest of reducing the impact of this step in future decisions, you should look to improve upon those biases with exposure to whatever embodies that bias.

It’s also worth taking a deep dive into what caused – and potentially continues to reinforce – a particular bias. This will help you re frame how you look at the subject of your bias and then accept facts from alternative perspectives.

Leaders must consistently look at every situation as unique and consider what is influencing their thoughts and behaviors.

2. Detach

As a leader, you have to take yourself out of the situation. This means you must have a detached mindset wherein you could take on any role in the outcome.

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If you were to take on one role, you might be incredibly happy, where another role would make you extremely upset.

Detachment, therefore, is looking at a situation as though you have no interest in the outcome.

This is difficult in business because you have a personal investment in the organization’s performance. But nobody said being fair was easy. It’s important to consider the best outcome for the roles involved, not necessarily the people.

Considering a particular person or group of people leaves you vulnerable to shifting desires that may create an unfair situation for others.

3. Create

Having approached your own biases and removed personal connections, it’s time to build an ideal outcome. This helps you visualize what needs must be fulfilled.

Think of it as building Emerald City in the Land of Oz before building the yellow brick road.

I highly recommended that you put this vision in physical form, whether that be a written statement of the outcome or a vision board with relevant images.

The purpose of this physical representation is for you to gain feedback on it. If you were to explain your vision to three or four people, you might change what you say, which will result in feedback to what amounts to be slightly different representations of your vision.

The variance should exist as much as possible in the interpretation by others, not in your creation.

4. Decide

Continuing from the metaphor above, you have feedback and you’re ready to build the yellow brick road.

What you are looking for here is not necessarily the perfect answer, as the answer should evolve. Sometimes, the yellow brick road needs to be a dirt path. And sometimes it has to be an eight-lane highway.

The integrity of your outcome, which represents the level of fairness here, is based upon how well you completed the first three steps.

Are you going to get this right the first time? No. The forty second time? Probably not. The point is to improve as you go.

In learning an instrument, a foreign language, or a sport, you don’t pick it up on the first day and qualify as an expert.

And though this step naturally follows the other three, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be obvious. Leaders should be comfortable with ambiguity, which fairness has in spades. When it comes to fairness, there is built-in subjectivity.

You can’t please everyone all the time because one person will want the exact opposite outcome as someone else.

Think back to the grilled cheese sandwich at the beginning. For leaders, the goal should be to create an outcome where fairness is built in and not considered after-the-fact. This will mitigate the human proclivity to sway with those shifting desires we all know and feel so often.

What you should not expect from improving your fairness as a leader is getting it right every time. What you should expect is gaining feedback and getting better every time.

How Can You Be a Fair Leader?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Philip Clark
Philip Clark is a former business consultant who currently writes about leadership psychology and development, aiming to improve the world one person at a time. After studying psychology and business at the College of William & Mary, he offers insight into looking past a standard checklist life by digging into what makes you tick and then improving it.