August 4, 2020

Small Business Advice

How to be a tough but fair manager

"Microsoft is not about greed. It's about innovation and fairness." ~ Bill Gates

Jerry Osteryoung | 11/30/2014

FBMC Benefits Management

Being a tough manager is easy. Being a fair manager is tough. It is so much easier to be a hard nose and demand your staff follow your orders to the letter, or else. Being fair, on the other hand, takes work. It takes putting the individual above the rules. When a mistake occurs, a fair manager takes into account the size of the infraction and the person before doling out judgment.

Take for example one manager who demanded his staff show up at 8 a.m. sharp. If they were even a minute late, they were written up, no matter the excuse.

One day, a staff member was five minutes late for the first time in three years. He came to his manager and explained he had been involved in a minor fender bender on the way to work. The manager said, “Rules are rules,” and wrote him up on the spot.

This manager thought by being tough, she was letting everyone know she would not accept any nonsense. However, she was doing more than just laying down the law. Her iron fist had created an atmosphere of fear, which is never good motivation.

I tried to get this manager to see the individuals on her team were all so different and it was her job to understand and manage these differences. This would mean learning to have empathy for her staff, which was a totally new experience for her.

She had never really learned to express and feel empathy, and it was a tough transition for her. However, after many months of work and effort, she began to realize that she had lost respect and the ability to lead her staff by being so rigid. When she started being fair instead, things improved dramatically.

Another manager was convinced that if he were to try to be fair, his staff would see it as a sign of weakness and try to take advantage of him. He made all of the decisions and never delegated for fear that doing so would make him look less capable. When there were employee issues, the only rules that counted were his. As with the first manager, this manager had a serious morale issue in his department.

Clearly, there are times when managers need to be tough. For example, when a staff member has been given numerous chances to improve their behavior but just does not get it, you may have to get tough. However, it should only come to this after all avenues of fairness have been exhausted.

By being fair, you demonstrate you understand and consider the context of any behavior. When an employee continually shows up late, you cannot discipline them properly until you know what is causing the behavior. It is incumbent on the manager to find out what is going on. Is it laziness or is the employee having day care issues? Clearly, these scenarios should be dealt with in different ways.

Now go out and make sure that you are being a fair manager. Being fair is not always easy, but it is so necessary if you are going to be a great manager.

You can do this.

Jerry Osteryoung is a consultant to businesses - he has directly assisted over 3,000 firms. He is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University. He was the founding Executive Director of The Jim Moran Institute and served in that position from 1995 through 2008. His newest book co-authored with Tim O'Brien, "If You Have Employees, You Really Need This Book," is an bestseller. He can be reached by e-mail at

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