As a leader, one of my biggest mistakes was believing I should treat everyone equally.  This is a societal fallacy that has moved into HR driven management training.  In fact, treating people equally is management not leadership.

Treating all people equally is a management strategy that is meant to prevent litigation.  It is a strategy that has little to do with driving productivity, developing leaders, or motivating employees.

As I strived to build Low Maintenance Teams in a bureaucratic organization characterized by equal treatment for all, I would often tell my people, “I will treat you all fairly, but I will not treat you equally.”

My Un-Resume

Fair But Not Equal

Example:  If a salaried employee with a five year history of high performance and positive attitudes asked to knock off early for the day, the answer was an immediate “Yes”.   No questions asked.

Conversely, I would ask a recent hire to explain their situation and consider other options.  They often would find a solution that would allow them to stay at work.  If there were no other viable options for that employee, I would likely approve the request.

A person’s prior performance should be taken into account in such a situation.  I know some managers believe both people should be treated equally in this situation.

In fact, my old corporate headquarters consistently sent mixed messages to their front line leaders.  On one hand we were told, we were a performance based organization.  Performance was the ultimate determinant of success.

On the other hand, we were trained to treat everyone without regard for their results, tenure or attitude.  I agree with treating all people with respect.  But, not everyone deserves to be treated equally.

Equal Treatment Is A Cop Out

A leader who decides to treat everyone equally has punted.  With the pressure from society and oversensitive underachievers, it takes effort and courage to lead in a fair way versus managing through the principle of equal treatment.

As leaders, we must make the effort to:

  • Set expectations up front that emphasize fair versus equal.
  • Give regular performance feedback to everyone.
  • Document those coaching conversations.
  • Pay attention to the differences between our top performers and the low performers.

As leaders, we must have the courage to:

  • Coach an issue quickly and fairly.
  • Make a stand for what is right versus just what is equal.
  • Avoided flip-flopping when pressure comes to take the easier equality route.

The Bottom Line:

Everyone does not deserve to be treated equally.  What they deserve is fair treatment.  We do people a disservice if we don’t treat them in a manner their actions deserve.

Our society is full of adults who believe equal pay and equal praise is a God given right.  I believe fair pay and fair praise is what we all deserve.

It may be an old fashioned value to believe we should get only what we have earned.  But I saw it on my early teams.  When I treated everyone equally, mediocrity became the norm.  The top performers came down a notch and the low performers felt what they were doing was good enough.

When I began treating people fairly but not equally, my top performers excelled and my lower performers got better, or they left.  That was a great result for everyone.  That is a leader’s responsibility, to get the best results for everyone.


When have you seen equal treatment for everyone hurt an organization?

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