Weekly Tools and Tips to Improve Any Relationship

November 14, 2017

Ask The Expert: Fair Treatment vs. Equal Treatment – What’s best for my team?


I recently had an opportunity to help out a friend of mine with some Color Code advice, and chances are, our conversation will likely be helpful to you as well. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to my friend as “Jack”.

Jack is an entrepreneur and is currently building a technology consulting firm. He has about 30 employees who come from all walks of life with different skill sets, backgrounds, and past life experiences. In order for his team to work well with each other, there has to be a strong sense of trust, and Jack is always working purposefully to cultivate a positive culture within the organization.

He is aware that if negativity remains unchecked, it can grow like a cancer that will eventually cause the team to fail. He’s seen that happen before (and you likely have, too).

Jack and I were discussing a specific issue that some of his team members were bristling over. One of Jack’s employees is a Yellow, and he’s a highly valuable member of the team. We’ll call him “Steve”. Steve does great work. Clients love, him, and he is highly productive, creative, and solutions-oriented.

The problem is that Steve requires a lot of flexibility and freedom in his life, which is quite common for Yellows. As a result, he works odd/inconsistent hours. Sometimes he works 70 hours a week, and other weeks, he works 25. If a buddy calls him for golf, he might not get into work until noon. (You get the idea).

Jack isn’t bothered by Steve’s schedule. He’s thrilled with the work that he produces. When I asked him about it, in fact, he said, “As long as he produces at a high level, I couldn’t care less about the schedule he keeps”.

However, others do…

Other employees have mentioned that it isn’t fair that that Steve be given the leeway that he has when they are there from 9 to 5 every day.

At that point, I felt it was important to make an important distinction between the concepts of “fair” and “equal”. While some people use these terms interchangeably, they actually have very different definitions.

What most people mean, when they cry out, “That’s not fair!”, would probably be more correctly stated as “That’s not equal!”

Equal means, “Exactly alike”. “Fair” means that you treat people as individuals with differing needs, but that you the way that you do it is just.

If employees at the firm were paid equally, regardless of their job responsibilities or the value that they produced for the company, would that arrangement be fair?

Of course not!

From a management prospective, “equal” treatment is a lot easier than “fair” treatment. You could decide to set the rules and expect everybody to fall in line with the structure you have created. If they don’t, there are known consequences.

That approach is pretty black and white; however, it’s difficult to make the occasional exception when you really need to and still treat people “equally”. That’s where you start to cross the line into trying to be more fair than equal.

The “fair” approach is a little more difficult to manage, because you need to know people’s circumstances, how to set up individual boundaries, and establish performance expectations. However, it may be a better way to get the very best from your team. For this to work, though, there has to be a certain level of respect and maturity within the group.

At Color Code, we believe that all life is about relationships, and that to make the most of your individual relationships, you have to understand how people are different one from another. If you interact with all people equally, you will miss several opportunities to connect. If you understand individual needs, wants, Motives, etc., you can adapt to each relationship so that you can make the most of it.

There are pros and cons to being fair and being equal. You have to decide which is best for your style and your team, and you may walk the line between both of those approaches from time to time.

I just think it really helps to understand the distinction, to purposefully choose your approach, and to be aware of the advantages and challenges inherent in both styles.

…By the way, Jack taught his team about the differences, and explained his desire to treat people fairly. They got the message, and the bristling has gone away. 😉

Jeremy DanielJeremy Daniel is the Vice President of Training for Color Code. He leads our Trainer Certification Program and has been teaching the Color Code and delivering motive-based applications to clients internationally since 1998.