Steven's Blog

Be Unfair and Play Favorites

Fairness is not about equity of treatment. It is about equity of opportunity to exercise one’s talents. You can play favorites and there is nothing wrong with doing so, as long as it is the excellent that you favor.

A non-Japanese vice president of sales, who manages a Japanese team, seconded a junior-level Japanese salesperson, who happens to speak English well, to help with communication in meetings with senior-level managers and key customers. He is the best at English on her staff, with ability far above the others. She told me that some of her staff and managers, including the junior salesperson himself, complained that it is unfair to involve such a junior-level person in senior-level meetings. She asked me how to handle this in a “Japanese way” as not to make people feel she is playing favorites.

There is no “Japanese way” to handle this. The mediocre will always be jealous of the fruits of the excellent, whether in Japan or anywhere else in the world. To those who voice concerns about fairness, I advised the vice president to say, “I am completely fair about this and play no favorites. If you improve your English ability, I will afford the same opportunities to you!”

She took my advice. And why shouldn’t she? There was nothing unfair to others about her decision. However, it would have been unfair to deny the junior salesperson the opportunity to use his English ability simply because others had not developed their own. It would have been unfair to the vice president of sales to deny her use of a workforce asset and hamper her ability to generate sales results simply because of the jealousy of others. It would have been unfair to the company’s CEO, who is accountable to the board for business results. It would have been unfair to the shareholders of the business to deliberately limit the return on their investment.

An HR director recently told me that the biggest issue inside her company is that many people feel they are being treated unfairly, and so her top priority is to ensure fairness. By fairness, she meant fairness in remuneration—that people are paid the same as their colleagues in equivalent positions, and that salaries are within a band of industry norms. However, nothing could be more wrong-headed for the business. If it is average results and average people you want, never pay more than average wages. Excellence has no market price.

The excellent always command greater remuneration and always demand access to opportunity. Click To Tweet

It is only the mediocre who insist everyone should be limited evenly.

If it is excellence that you want for your business, it pays to be unfair. Smart leaders in business play favorites and you should too, no matter who complains!


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