Jacob Kaplan-Moss

“Fair” Doesn’t Mean “Equal”

My previous piece, on addressing defensiveness, sparked a series of conversations with friends about giving and receiving feedback in general. Many had strong feelings about the specific language I suggested there. Those feelings were all over the map: “I wish my boss gave me feedback in this manner”; “I would never be able to give feedback in this style”; “I’d get pretty angry if I heard feedback like this.”

In all of these discussions, we quickly came to a common point: to be effective, you’d need to tailor the feedback, both content and form, to the particular needs of the person hearing it. If someone struggles with insecurity, I might choose to soften the tone and emphasizing available support. If they tend to process feedback out loud and want to talk things through, I might make it more of a conversation than a direct message. If they need time to process, I might send the feedback over chat or email and then set aside time for any follow-ups at our next one-on-one. What I wouldn’t do: use the same script for everyone.

This brings me back to one of the earliest lessons I learned in my management career. It’s a realization that’s embarrassingly obvious in hindsight: treating people fairly doesn’t mean treating everyone the same.

When I first started managing people, I knew I wanted to be fair. I wanted to treat people well, and part of that (to me) meant treating them fairly. But I didn’t think very deeply about what “fair” meant; instead, I just sort of went with “fair means treating everyone the same.” This sounds fine on the surface, but it quickly fell apart.

For example: I noticed that one person on my team, who I’ll call Adam, didn’t speak much in meetings. That seemed unfair. His peers always had a lot to say, so I started calling on Adam directly. When he’d mumble a few words, I’d push for more. But the more I put him on the spot, the less he’d speak, and so the more I’d push him. It was a bad cycle, and I think he was pretty unhappy.

I finally learned that it was difficult for him to process new material and express an opinion on the spot. Adam needed to have some time to think about a problem before trying to solve it, and he much preferred to express his opinions in writing. But I stubbornly thought that not “letting” him speak in meetings was unfair, and just kept trying to make my meetings “equal”. He finally got so frustrated he complained to my boss, who, thank goodness, set me straight.

When I look back on my early failures as a manager, many of them have this same sort of thing at the root: an assumption that humans have a consistent API – everyone thinks the same, communicates the same, and so forth. Of course, implicit in this is the idea that everyone thinks the same as memy brain is the only one I know so of course everyone else’s must be the same.

Of course, this is nonsense. I’m quite comfortable in group meeting environments, but Adam isn’t. Critically, neither of us is “right” or “wrong”. The equal thing, pushing him to talk as much as me in a meeting, wasn’t at all the fair thing. To be fair, I needed to approach getting Adam’s input very differently: give him material ahead of time, get his feedback in writing, and speak to his position myself rather than putting him on the spot.

Notably, this might be critically unfair to someone else: to a different person, this might seem like taking credit for their work! Not letting them present their position directly would be insulting and disempowering. But it made Adam feel safe, involved, and engaged.

This is why it’s so critically important that good managers get to know their team. It’s why I consider One-on-Ones the cornerstone of good management practice. If you want to treat people well, you need to understand what they need to do their best work. The best way to do this is to talk with them, often, ask about preferences, and listen to what they need. I’ll do things like check in after meetings: “Hey, I noticed you didn’t say much in our staff meeting last week; did that feel OK or did you wish you’d had more time?”

I keep notes on everyone on my team: do they prefer feedback in our one-on-ones or over chat/email? Do they like praise in public or in private? Do I need to make space for them in meetings or will they do it themselves? Would they prefer that I deliver bad news on their behalf, or do they want to own that? How often do they need to hear praise to feel valued? And so forth. The answers are different for everyone, and that’s OK.

I was right that good managers are fair. But I now realize that fair isn’t the same as equal. The best managers understand their people and meet them where they are, and give them what they need to thrive.