Pickled TonguesWay back at the start of this blog, before we even unleashed it on the wider world, I wrote about the word ‘bi-partisan’ and the amount of air coverage it had acquired during Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign. As I type, Americans are queueing at polling stations in the mid-term elections that will probably overturn the Democrat Party’s majorities in at least one House of Congress. ‘Bi-partisan’ has turned out to be something that we haven’t seen much of, although it was perhaps always going to prove to be a word flagged more in hope than in anything else. Bi-partisan behaviour takes two consenting parties, and we all know how that’s played out. I’m just glad I didn’t type anything along the lines of ‘This isn’t going to be a tea party …’. But, if there was a lesson to be learned about leaders picking abstract concepts as watchwords, it seems our own leaders weren’t paying attention. We seem to be having a bit of trouble with ‘fairness’, don’t we?

We’ve written about four year olds before as well, praising their grasp of the question ‘Why?’ and their determination to be answered. But that can be a damning question to be on the receiving end, as most parents, godparents and nursery assistants will probably be all too aware. Four year olds have another (over-)familiar cri de coeur too: “It’s not fair!”, often accompanied by petulance, stamping, and damage to inanimate objects. Every four year old is a one person pressure group that has clearly grasped the principle of self-interest, and may the good lord or nearest spiritual equivalent offer assistance to any who stand in the path of its fulfilment.  For fairness is a slippery notion that – like beauty –can ultimately be defined only by the receiver. Getting that receiver’s acquiescence is, however, important for anyone attempting a leadership role, or wishing to earn or retain respect. Anton Checkhov once summed up why:

No matter how corrupt and unjust a convict may be, he loves fairness more than anything else. If the people placed over him are unfair, from year to year he lapses into an embittered state characterized by an extreme lack of faith.

Fine talk of fairness is usually a risky sell, even if it does make an attractive element for a strap line. You might remember Equitable Life, with that reassuring “It’s an equitable life, Henry” tagline on the old telly adverts, redolent of duffle coats, log fires and kindly uncles with a pocket full of Werther’s Originals. You might not be so familiar with the saga of its erstwhile investors and their struggle for compensation. Once bitten, twice wary, and insurance companies featuring garden paths in their advertising nowadays shouldn’t be too surprised if potential investors seem less keen on an alfresco stroll. I’m also old enough to remember Joyce Grenfell, and her riposte to the old music hall song title, “Come into the Garden, Maud” – “Maud says she begs your pardon/But she wasn’t born yesterday” (the full lyric is available online for anyone in need of advice on rejecting unwanted suitors in a genteel fashion.)

Not being fair – or not being seen or felt to be fair – has repercussions, and more serious ones than a slight dampening of a paramour’s ardour. We know from the Comprehensive Spending Review that the number of people who will lose their current jobs over the coming years will be counted in the hundreds of thousands, and rival estimates put the figure as high as 1.6 million across both public and private sectors (this figure from a CIPD Press Release of 1 Nov 2010). Those figures, of course, are consequences of government budgetary choices that have already sparked what we might call lively debate about their fairness (the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders is just one of many who conclude that fairness is an elusive and evasive notion.)

In themselves, these figures are about legal employment contracts being severed, but there is another important aspect: the psychological contract. Here’s an extract from an article, Downsizing And Organizational Culture byThomas A. Hickok, originally published in the Journal of Public Administration and Management in 1998, the text of which is available online elsewhere:

Brockner and colleagues have studied the “fairness” of layoffs from a procedural justice perspective and have shown a link between perceived fairness of the layoffs and survivor commitment to the organization (e.g., Brockner et al, 1994). Among the fairness factors which Brockner examines is the connection with existing corporate culture. Organizations such as IBM and Digital Equipment which have traditionally had a policy of averting layoffs are likely to be perceived by employees as violating the psychological contract and therefore as more unfair when they do resort to layoffs.

[…]Work relationships can become much more testy during periods of organizational decline. That can take the form of “backstabbing, placing of blame, and overt failure to cooperate” (Mohrman and Mohrman, 1983:459). Hickok (1995) analyzed interview responses at two downsizing military bases and found that mentions of increased conflict in the workplace were significantly greater than the more positive mentions of pulling together.”

Fairness is not just about statistics: despite being numeric and quantative, statistics have become – in a world that depends overly on them as sources of influence in debate – too easily interpreted, and all too often too easily discredited as a consequence. (You might want to skim an article at the Institute of Economic Affairs blog for a flavour of the heat that statistics can generate, or the FCA, Melanie Phillips or Jonathon Porritt blogs or the opinions of Reuters or the Green Party for a flavour of the wider debate. I’ve tried to give a broad range of links here, but will inevitably be seen as being ‘unfair’ from someone’s perspective. But then headcounts will roll no matter who’s right or wrong.)

Numeric analysis can also invoke the response that purely numeric analysis misses the point. Even where the numbers are unassailable, few people will love, admire, honour or respect you to any greater extent because a spreadsheet says they should.

Fairness – or a willingness to accept a degree of unfairness if a longer term benefit or a greater good can be achieved – also depends on interpersonal skill and good people management skills. Hickok’s original article ended with a five question test for those contemplating downsizing; in current times, downsizing may be less of a choice for many organisations, but – given the impact, not least on those that will remain – they’re questions that managers could still benefit from asking themselves:

SMELL: Is the company being decent to it’s constituents? Or will, over time, the stench of fish left out too long become apparent?
TELL: Has the essential condition which may lead to some difficult decisions been communicated to the organization’s constituents. Have the constituents been able to provide input?
BELL: Have we carefully thought through the consequences for those “for them the bell tolls”? How will this affect those who may lose their jobs? How will this affect those who remain?
SELL: Are we prepared to announce and explain my decisions to multiple constituencies, including media, community activists, Congressmen?
SWELL: Does the plan for change, of which these decisions are a part, offer the organization to achieve better results in the future? “

In the meantime, remember that Maud isn’t getting any younger. Or any more patient.

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