Why Being a Fair HR Leader Won’t Get You Promoted

Look out HR Leaders – this one is going to sting a little – from The Harvard Business Review:

“In management, fairness is a virtue. Numerous academic studies have shown that the most effective leaders are generally those who give employees a voice, treat them with dignity and consistency, and base decisions on accurate and complete information.

But there’s a hidden cost to this behavior. We’ve found that although fair managers earn respect, they’re seen as less powerful than other managers—less in control of resources, less able to reward and punish—and that may hurt their odds of attaining certain key, contentious leadership roles.”

Wow, that really flies in the face of all that we’ve been taught by our HR Heroes, doesn’t it!   Well, not exactly, just because treating employees fairly and with respect might not get you promoted, it doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do.  That’s a hard pill to swallow thought, right?  How many times in your career have you looked at someone who was promoted and said to yourself “how the hell did they get promoted!?”  It’s usually the leader who is pushing people around, and no one likes, and the CEO taps them on the shoulder for the next VP role.  Some more from the HBR article:

“We’ve long wondered why managers don’t always behave fairly, because doing so would clearly benefit their organizations: Studies show that the success of change initiatives depends largely on fair implementation. Our research suggests an answer. Managers see respect and power as two mutually exclusive avenues to influence, and many choose the latter.  Although this appears to be the more rational choice, it’s not always the correct one—and it poses big risks for organizations.” 

Do you know why managers choose “Power” over “Respect” as a leadership style?  It’s easier!  I mean way EASIER!  Positional power makes your job so much easier to move things through organizations and get things done – but you burn a lot of bridges and relationships on that path.  Getting things accomplished through mutual respect and influence can take time, but ultimately is more rewarding.  Time tends to be the big factor with this, though.  In today’s organizations we frequently feel pushed by time to get things done – Now – and that “now” tends not to work well with “respect”.   More from HBR:

“Companies can benefit from placing more value on fairness when assessing managerial performance. Our early follow-up research suggests that managers whose style is based on respect can gain power. Their path upward may be difficult, but it’s one worth taking, for their company’s sake as well as their own.”

Thus, this is the key – want to build Great leaders in your organization? Give them this time to get things done through leading with a style based in respect.  Want to get something done tomorrow, and not care about how your employees are getting treated?  Let positional power rule the day, and be comfortable with your leaders throwing their weight around the office to get things done.  Let’s face it, this isn’t an all or nothing exclusive thing.  We need our leaders to do both – treat employees with respect, and get results quickly.  That’s why we have HR!  That is a tough thing to accomplish, but HR Pros can help leaders accomplish this task.

2 thoughts on “Why Being a Fair HR Leader Won’t Get You Promoted

  1. It is nice to see that people get punished for these types of things. Thanks Tim for bringing this to the attention of those that do not normally see the article you are referring to. There used to be laws against treating employees in a fair and equitable manner – then everything started falling under at will employers and therefore anything that used to be illegal went out the door. Espeically in small businesses – they do what they want and your choice is to quit or put up with it. You can not say anything or you get fired and then they fight your unemployment – you can not quit because there are not jobs readily available out there. And the worst part is even though it is against the law technically to have to work in a “hostile work enmvironment” you have to prove it. Yet there is basically no way to prove anything. You can not record anything because it is not legal unless you advise – however if you do this you then get different treatment and get fired. WOW – Thanks again Tim for pointing out that the right way is truly the best way and Brian for showing some of us that those that do it the unethical way actually get caught and punished

  2. I read this article about a week ago. This is something I witnessed first hand at my previous employer. I believe there is clear difference between a leader and a manager. The completion of a task for a leader is typically done out of loyalty, whereas for a manger it’s done out of fear. We had a high level “manager” that played the power role hoping it would get her to the top. Stepping on, over, and belittling everyone in sight. When the company reorganized, Execs took notice and actually demoted her to a less than desirable position in South Chicago. Reducing her direct reports in half and imposing a mandatory leadership training course.

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