How to Be Fair When You’re the Decision-Maker

A reader asks:

I’m hiring for several positions, and some of my staff have asked to meet the candidates and participate in the interview process. I’m reluctant to do that because I don’t want them to think that we’re going to pick the new hire by consensus; I’m going to make the decision. They’ve also mentioned in the past that they don’t always think some decisions I’ve made were fair to them. Is there a nice way to get them to realize that sometimes they won’t be the ones deciding things and that’s just how this works?”

 

Well, here’s the thing: It’s absolutely true that you will need to be the final decision-maker on a whole range of items – but that’s not at odds with people still being able to have input and hearing your reasons for the decisions you make.

And in fact, by letting people share their input and talking with them about why you’ve made the decisions you have, you’ll accomplish a number of useful things:

  • You’ll be more likely to reach the right decision in the first place, because you’ll have given yourself the opportunity to hear and consider others’ counsel. (Hiring is a great example of how this can work; candidates may reveal different information to staff members than to you, or your staff members may simply pick up on different things than you do.)
  • Your staff members will be more likely to support decisions even if the final decision doesn’t go their way – because they’ll feel that the decision-making process was fair.
  • Staff members will feel more invested in the team or organization because they’ll feel that their input is meaningful – meaning that it’s truly welcomed and considered.

In other words, don’t fall back on “I’m the decision-maker and this is just the way it is.” Instead, make the decision, yes – but make it openly and fairly, with real opportunities for others to be heard.

So what does that look like in practice? These three steps will go a long way toward fair decision-making:

1. Welcome others’ input while making it clear that you’ll make the final call. For instance, you might say, “I’m grappling with X and would love to run my thoughts by you and hear your input.” Or, “I need to make a decision about Y and would love any thoughts you have on it.” Or even, “I want to note that we’re not going to decide this as a group, but I’d like to get people’s input and advice.”

2. Take staff members’ input seriously. Don’t simply go through the motions; truly consider the input you’re given. That means engaging, asking questions, explaining where you disagree, and so forth. And it means doing this not just because it will make people feel heard – although it will – but because you know that you’ll truly reach a better decision this way.

3. Explain your decisions once you make them. Even if staff members don’t always agree with your decisions, they’re much more likely to support them if they understand how you arrived at them and that their input was factored into your thinking. For instance, if you’re wrestling with whether to launch a new initiative, you might explain the context to your staff and solicit their input, then spend some time thinking it over and talking with others outside the organization, and ultimately make the final decision. You’d then come back to your staff and explained how you arrived at the decision, perhaps saying something like, “I thought about Sofia’s concern about the advocacy team’s existing workload next year and about Kareem’s desire to ensure we’re able to make enough of an impact with our other campaigns,” and so forth. That way, no matter what your ultimate decision is, it’ll be clear that you took people’s input seriously.

You don’t need to do this for every little thing, of course, but for big items or anything likely to be sensitive or controversial, it’s enormously helpful to explain your thought process and why you ended up where you did.

Further Reading:  W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, “Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy,” Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2003.