Coaching Fair Process to the Impatient Leader

“It’s not that they don’t get it. It’s that they’re resisting.”

“I don’t get it. This plan makes so much sense and my people aren’t getting it!” Karel is the APAC marketing head of a medical device company. “Well, they get it Karel. But they’re resisting. And for a reason.” Lisa, my co-coach whom we are coaching Karel and his team, looks at me and I see where she is heading. It’s time to coach Karel “fair process.”

A few months ago, Karel pitched to his leadership team a pivot in the marketing plan of one of their product lines to a different customer segment, and they loved it. “Go for it Karel!” – with endorsement from higher up, Karel set on to reorganize his teams and their work for the campaign. Three months down the road, his teams are a mess. Karel’s idea was to “borrow” certain people from his existing teams to form a project team, and do a series of two-way, even three-way swaps and overlaps of people to cover the shortfall of people until the project is over. He has twenty over people among his teams and in the previous year-end offsite he recalls they were all upbeat in taking on new challenges. So this project shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Or so he thought.

Lisa and I were called into lending Karel a hand. For the first couple weeks we spoke with his people to get a “smell of the air.” Not a disaster yet, but definitely in a confused state, frustrations abound.

One key observation was that a lot of people would commonly say in one expression or another “I don’t disagree with Karel’s plan, “his” project makes sense and we should/need to do it.” And then the all familiar “But…” and “The problem is…” statement followed by a tsunami of grievances expressed.

Fair Process

The focal point of this post is a 2003 Harvard Business Review article by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, the two INSEAD professors that created the famous Blue Ocean Strategy, titled “Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy.” Fair process is based on learnings from behavioral economics, decision science and psychology of justice.

Fair Process

The article circles on a false assumption stemming from good’ol Taylorism, the factory model of organizations:

[In traditional economics,] “economists assume that people are maximizers of utility, driven mainly by rational calculations of their own self-interest. That is, economists assume people focus solely on outcomes. That assumption has migrated into much of management theory and practice.”

“Traditional management science … operate in the realm of outcome fairness or what social scientists call distributive justice, where the psychology works like this: When people get the compensation (or the resources, or the place in the organizational hierarchy) they deserve, they feel satisfied with that outcome. They will reciprocate by fulfilling to the letter their obligation to the company.”

Taylorism and the Ford Model T Factory1911

“But it is an assumption that managers would do well to reexamine because we all know that in real life it doesn’t always hold true. People do care about outcomes, but … they also care about the processes that produce those outcomes. They want to know that they had their say—that their point of view was considered even if it was rejected. Outcomes matter, but no more than the fairness of the processes that produce them.”

“The psychology of fair process, or procedural justice, is quite different. Fair process builds trust and commitment, trust and commitment produce voluntary cooperation, and voluntary cooperation drives performance, leading people to go beyond the call of duty by sharing their knowledge and applying their creativity. In all the management contexts we’ve studied, whatever the task, we have consistently observed this dynamic at work.”

Karel and his teams’ case is a classic example of what Kim and Mauborgne call as “good outcome, unfair process.” (In the article the authors don’t define what an “outcome” is, but consider it as anything that involves a “decision.” So, plans and instructions are “outcomes” in this sense.) Karel’s marketing pivot plan is a “good outcome” that many of his team members support as a strategically necessary move. Even his unpopular subsequent action of team reorganization is met with sympathy – a necessary pain. But what was missing was a “fair process”:

  • “We don’t have the full picture.”
  • “I feel dumped.”
  • “It’s not fun doing something that we don’t have a say in why we’re doing it.”
  • “I mean if he wants us to do something, he can’t just tell us go figure. I’m happy to support what we wants us to get done, but he needs to be specific.”
  • “There’s no clarity.”
  • “I feel like there’s less latitude in my work than before.”
  • “We’re misaligned.”
  • “Everything’s done so hastily and in an ad-hoc way.”
  • “There are other priorities that are being ignored.”
  • “I don’t feel respected of my decisions. Everything needs to be decided by him.”
  • “Things were working before. We understand we need to change, but at what cost?”
  • “I think we’re doing this in the wrong way. But there’s no point voicing that at this stage.”

All of these comments from the team signal a lack of sense of ownership of the project among team members. It’s “the” project or “Karel’s” project and not “our” project.

The good news is that, again, Karel’s relationship with team members are not in a disastrous state, yet. The teams enjoyed great performance under Karel’s leadership in the previous year, and he is liked by his people as a positively supporting, encouraging and dependable leader, albeit somewhat impatient and quick to act. It’s just that this past few months have been chaotic with all the changes introduced, and the uncertainty of where they are heading is creating frustration, anxiety and concern.

People are withholding and dragging their feet, but not to the extent of showing irrational, damaging behavior, again, yet. Our experience is that once a certain threshold of “unfairness” is crossed, people can resort to logic-defying sabotaging behavior even against their own benefit. Or worse, they will engage in “retributive justice: Not only do they want fair process restored, they also seek to visit punishment and vengeance upon those who have violated it in compensation for the disrespect the unfair process signals… Such is the emotional power that unfair process can provoke.”

Engagement, Explanation, Expectation Clarity

“Hey, listen, I failed and things got a bit messy. So, can we try again?” Karel’s “reset” session with his six key team leads and managers started with some straight forward humility that even Coach Lisa and I were caught off-guard. One of Karel’s strengths is in his ability to pivot quickly, and his embracing of fair process was no exception.

In our prep session, Karel shared that he first imagined fair process as all about listening and consensus building and therefore was skeptical to such “soft” approach. The following two paragraphs from the article helped him clarify that misconception:

Notice that fair process is not decision by consensus. Fair process does not set out to achieve harmony or to win people’s support through compromises that accommodate every individual’s opinions, needs, or interests. While fair process gives every idea a chance, the merit of the ideas—and not consensus—is what drives the decision making.

Nor is fair process the same as democracy in the workplace. Achieving fair process does not mean that managers forfeit their prerogative to make decisions and establish policies and procedures. Fair process pursues the best ideas whether they are put forth by one or many.

With that concern out of the way, we discussed the following three principle action model of fair process and asked Karel how applicable this would be for him:

Engagement means involving individuals in the decisions that affect them by asking for their input and allowing them to refute the merits of one another’s ideas and assumptions. Engagement communicates management’s respect for individuals and their ideas. Encouraging refutation sharpens everyone’s thinking and builds collective wisdom. Engagement results in better decisions by management and greater commitment from all involved in executing those decisions.

Explanation means that everyone involved and affected should understand why final decisions are made as they are. An explanation of the thinking that underlies decisions makes people confident that managers have considered their opinions and have made those decisions impartially in the overall interests of the company. An explanation allows employees to trust managers’ intentions even if their own ideas have been rejected. It also serves as a powerful feedback loop that enhances learning.

Expectation clarity requires that once a decision is made, managers state clearly the new rules of the game. Although the expectations may be demanding, employees should know up front by what standards they will be judged and the penalties for failure. What are the new targets and milestones? Who is responsible for what? To achieve fair process, it matters less what the new rules and policies are and more that they are clearly understood. When people clearly understand what is expected of them, political jockeying and favoritism are minimized, and they can focus on the job at hand.

Karel was hopeful that these three principles will serve as a guiding posts for a series of “resetting” discussions with his people. And hence, we decided to start with a pilot session with his immediate leadership team, and subsequently in the next few weeks we facilitated multiple rounds of discussions with the rest of the teams.

So, was it a happy ending? Well, not quite yet.

The Impatient Leader

Two months since the first “reset” session, Karel’s impatience was noticeably growing back. While the teams were starting to get organized with the new ways of working agreed from the discussion sessions and people were feeling that the earlier confusion was settling down, Karel started talking about “moving on to the next phase” and “showing progress.”

And with that, the frequency and granularity of Karel’s instructions to his people started etching back (see visual). One of his team leaders confided to us aptly as “Karel’s back.”

Want to stop micro-managing? Command at the right level of granularity.

After one of the team sessions when I had a moment alone with Karel, I asked if I could share him my latest observations and thoughts: “Karel, we’re at crossroads. We averted a crisis and your project team is finally up and running and the rest of your teams are picking up the slack.” “Now you have a choice, and both are valid choices from a business perspective. We can call an end to the fair process experiment, and you can go back to your familiar style of management – which has quirks but works and your people are fine with it.” “Or you can continue with the fair process experiment. See what happens when you consciously lead with a fair process even in business-as-usual times. Choice is yours.”

By now Karel is used to my coaching so he knows that I have further thoughts in the background and urges me to continue: “See, impatience is actually a leadership quality. It’s not a good interpersonal behavioral trait as it puts pressure on other people, but there’s research that show performing leaders tend to be impatient people too. Simply put, impatience drive leaders to get things done.” “Obviously, impatience comes at a cost so this article suggests leaders to find the balance between impatience and patience. And I think that balance is achieved by practicing fair process.”

Why it's okay for leaders to be impatient

“So what I’m suggesting here is, use your impatience to your advantage, and augment it with a deliberate practice of fair process so that you can get the best of both worlds. What do you think?”

Karel continues to be an impatient leader. Yet he practices being engaging with a curious active listening mindset, tries to be more influencing rather than persuading or convincing when explaining, and not shy to be radically candid when providing expectation clarity. His people see him as a tough but open and fair boss, and Karel thinks that’s just about right.


As with all client case studies written by Coach Takeshi, names, organizations and other details featured in this article are not real but based on actual client events.

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Founder & Chief Coach, Agile Organization Development.