Problem of Fairness

Our one-sided idea of fairness is the source of many of the problems we face. Here are some examples to illustrate this point.


Many well-intentioned managers in the corporate environment work diligently to help those who are underperforming become solid performers. When asked why they devote so much time and energy to this effort they often respond “I want to be fair the person.

In a well-intentioned attempt at being fair to the individual, they fail to realize that they are not being fair to the rest of their team who are correcting the mistakes and absorbing additional work from the person who is failing in their performance. That’s in addition to performing their own jobs.


Many are appalled by the huge salaries exceptional athletes and performers make. They are equally dismayed at how many people earn poverty-level incomes despite living in one of the most economically wealthy countries in the world. These disparities create a desire for more equity…more fairness in pay.

Those who possess these mindsets fail to look at the other side of the fairness coin. They fail to see that the compensation that a person receives is directly related to their level of desire. 

Exceptional athletes and entertainers, or anyone at the top of their field, desire to be the best. Their desire drives them to put forth much more effort than the vast majority of us are willing to expend. Consider the hours and hours of practice and training that they invest in improving their craft, the time away from family and friends, the amount of travel involved, then ask yourself “Am I willing to do these things?” 

Most of us are not because we don’t posses the level of desire for career success that these folks do. Instead, our desires are more toward time with family and friends, hobbies we enjoy and recreational travel. Both sets of desires are reasonable if it fits what you want in life.

On the opposite end of the income spectrum we find people living at or near the poverty level. Our hearts go out to them because we’d like to see everyone enjoy the good fortune we’ve experienced. Yet, as Thomas Sowell points out in his book, Discrimination and Disparities (opens in a new link), many who are income group are teens who within a decade or so climb out of this income level as they gain experience and skills. Their desire to improve their lot in life, their willingness to gain employment that accelerates acquisition of skills and experience results in increased compensation commensurate with their desire.

The few who don’t move out of this category have chosen, based on the life they desire, not to pursue the acquisition of ever-increasing skills and experience. Their compensation fits their desire for the life they’ve chosen…which is their right.

Awareness of what makes people happy and how it differs from individual to individual is made clear in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (opens in a new link). 

Other examples

These are just two examples of how our attempts at fairness skew our thinking in ways that cause us to ignore the other parties affected. Thomas Sowell’s book, The Vision of the Anointed (opens in a new link), highlights how this concept of fairness affects us in areas like criminality, health care and other public policy issues.

What does this mean for you?

For you

When you find yourself concerned about whether you’re being fair with an individual, also ask yourself “Am what I’m considering also fair to others involved…including myself?” It’s another way of examining Spock’s admonition “the good of the many outweigh the good of the few.”

As you hear public cries for fairness to various groups ask yourself “How are these cries for fairness going to impact those not a part of this group?” Many public policy decisions made to promote fairness come at at cost to other segments of the population. Is it fair to shift the cost to those who possess higher levels of desire when both parties have made choices based on the lifestyle they desire (are willing to work to get)?

For our kids

Help kids understand that any attempt at fairness must consider the impact on all involved, not just those who seem to be at a disadvantage. By considering both perspectives, they, and you, are likely to produce a more fair result for all.

Let others know that you love them by sharing this blog post. They’ll appreciate that you care.

I love hearing your thoughts and experiences, please share them in a comment.

If you’d like to enjoy great confidence, check out our Confidence Self-Study programs (opens in a new link). 

If you’d like to enrich the lives of others by teaching them to be more confident, check out our Teaching Confidence Instructor Certification program (opens in a new link).

Follow dfurtwengler:

Latest posts from

2 Responses

  1. bill prenatt

    Dale, I learned this ‘fairness lesson’ first-hand the hard way! For the first ten years of my career, I was led to believe by our company’s motto that “we should treat people the way that we would like to be treated”

    I tried that philosophy for ten years, with mixed results! What I learned was that I needed to treat people the way that they needed to be treated in order to achieve their potential. i still try to practice that philosophy today 🙂

    • dfurtwengler

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Bill. There are times, as you suggest, when treating people the way they want to be treated is enabling behaviors that don’t serve them well. It’s at times like these that we do a greater service by telling people what they don’t want to hear…as you do in an always encouraging manner. It’s one of the secrets of your success.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *