• Cloudway Partners

Tough But Fair

How many times have you heard this expression? What does it mean to you? We hear this expression all the time, usually by someone who wants to convey an image of being “tough,” yet tempered, so as not to appear inequitable. If you look up synonyms for “tough” in MS Word, here is what comes up: “threatening, rough, hard, dangerous, hard-hitting, harsh, strong.” None of us would ever describe ourselves as threatening or dangerous. The only synonym that seems remotely acceptable is “strong.” Antonyms for the word “tough” include “pleasant, weak, easy, tender, soft, fragile flimsy.” So clearly, someone describing themselves as “tough” does not want to convey any of those sentiments. However, “tough” might imply a sense of unfairness, so the phrase “tough but fair” is used to indicate harshness, but with the unfairness stripped out.


This is nonsense. If you look at a continuum of the meaning of the word “tough” back through its antonyms, you get the diagram below. What’s in the middle of “easy” and “tough?” “FAIR!” One can’t be both tough and fair at the same time. That phrase means that you are tough with certain people, and less tough with others. This is the very definition of “unfair.”



So the next time you hear a boss or leader say that he (or she) is “tough but fair,” watch out. Odds are the person is most definitely not fair. One can be easy. One can be tough. One can be fair. One can’t be several at the same time. The key is consistency. If you prefer to be tough, so be it. But be the same to everyone. By the same token, if you want to be easy, that’s fine, too. But be that way with everyone. The best option, of course, is to be fair, and that is actually the hardest of all. It is easy to go to one end of the spectrum or the other. It is much more difficult to stay in the middle.


Being fair means being equitable. Equitable is not the same as equal. I am constantly teaching this lesson to my teenagers, a 15-year old girl and a 14-year old boy, both of whom have different definitions of “fair.” It means balancing their needs against their unique situations and needs and personalities. The 15-year old is adventuresome. She like to take risks, ride her bike around town or take the subway to visit friends. The 14-year old prefers to stay inside and play his X-Box all day. To simply lock them both in the house might seem fair, but it would be the opposite, and actually a detriment to both of them. In my eyes, being “fair” means I put some restrictions on her mobility (home by dark, stay within 2 miles of home, wear a helmet, tell me who you are seeing and what you’re doing, etc.) And the boy has his X-Box balanced against other needs as I see them (get outside, practice your piano, mow the lawn, etc.). Being tough and using a one-size-fits-all solution (restricting both to the house) does not work and is actually the epitome of unfair. Being easy would be a disaster, since she would be roaming the city and he’d forget to eat. Being fair requires a solution that balances each of their desires with reasonable restrictions – not so easy that they do whatever they want, but not so tough that they can do nothing.


To use a more famous example, treating people equally means giving everybody an aspirin, regardless of their ailment. Being equitable means treating their ailments and restoring them to health, even though the treatments are different and have dissimilar costs.


Another example is this: There is a 6-foot tall fence. Everyone needs to see over the fence. For some people, nothing needs to be done – they are tall enough to see over the fence. For some, we need to provide a 1-foot stool. For others, a taller stool is needed. The end result is that everyone can now see over the fence – that is the “fair” part of the exercise.


In the corporate world, the same applies. Every individual has his/her own desires, aspirations, skills, limitations, etc. These are tempered by other factors, many of which you may not be sensitive to or even aware of. Being a fair-minded boss, particularly as it comes to advancement and opportunity, means being able to create equality in the workplace for individuals in the context of a corporation, not an easy feat. For some people, that might mean a specialized training session. For others, paying for an MBA. The combinations are endless. The key is to remember that you are giving each individual opportunities that are in line with their skills and needs.


A good boss is fair, and that is hard to do. It requires listening, understanding, good judgement and a fair amount of creativity. A tough-but-fair person is a cop-out.

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