A Fair Shake

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There are two subjects living rent-free in my brain right now.

One is the Maverick Manager Masterclass I am creating. It’s really made me delve deep into my thinking on what it takes to be a great manager, which is one of the essential elements of being a great leader.

The other is what I have been seeing on LinkedIn on the topics of people management and leadership. The ones that resonate most as measured by engagement? Those which either lament bad managers or offer pithy platitudes on how to be a great leader.

Let’s set aside the fact that neither of these stylistic approaches tells us anything useful in terms of what one should do about the problem. What I find interesting is the sheer number of posts. Nothing even comes close in terms of what people talk about when they’re talking about work.

People are the slipperiest part of the equation when it comes to execution, for obvious reasons. And yet, the path to creating alignment, to giving people what they want (or at least what I suspect they want), namely a fair shake, requires very little on the part of the manager or employee. That’s the topic for today’s newsletter.

Thanks as always for reading, and please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts by simply replying to this email.

A Fair Shake


I spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve interpersonal interactions in the workplace.


Because people are easily the biggest wildcard when it comes to execution, for all the reasons we would understand. Each of us comes to the table with different experiences, perspectives, individual strengths, and individual flaws.

My thoughts invariably lead me to the same central question: what is it that people want from work? I’m not talking about what Luke Burgis would call “thin desires”, that is, the superficial and often material stuff that forces them to stay on the treadmill to keep up with the Joneses. I’m talking about “thick desires”: the things that make them feel valued, which lead them to feel engaged, which ultimately lead to high performance.

For if we can figure out how to create these conditions for 8-ish hours per day, five days a week, 22 odd days a month, you can imagine the competitive advantage you would develop. Likewise, if you were to create conditions which make work a shitty place to be for 8+ hours a day, five days a week, 22 days … well, you get the picture.

What People Want

I always arrive at the same conclusion. I think people want a fair shake. I think people want to feel like if they do their jobs well, they’ll be rewarded. And I think they want to do that in an environment in which they’re treated decently—and surely not disrespectfully or made to feel under threat for any reasons. Maybe I’m projecting. I surely want that. But I think others do, too.

The thing about work that makes that difficult, though, is that there is a hierarchy which equates to power. I mention that not because I disagree with hierarchy (it is, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst form of organization except for all those other forms that have been tried), but because the inherent nature of a hierarchy means that other people have power over you and regularly do things that impact you and your wellbeing. Just like in politics.

Except that in politics (in Western democracies at least) there is the concept of a social contract.

The Social Contract

The social contract is a political/philosophical construct that arose during the Age of Enlightenment. At its core, it is essentially an agreement between participants in a society that allows them to live peacefully, with freedoms that are equal and indivisible and cannot be trammeled. Social contract theory speaks explicitly to the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, and provides the basis for fair and respectful interaction.

I think people bring this same idea to work.

It is not the least bit surprising to me that they do, either, even if they don’t always articulate it well. The disconnects people feel in the workplace—which one can plainly see by looking at the most viral content on LinkedIn—are rooted in the breach of this contract.

And who has the most direct influence on a person? To whom can we attribute 70% of an employee’s engagement at work? You guessed it: the manager.

Repeatable behavior

How do you create trust as a manager? Trust is a temporal concept. It doesn’t just spontaneously come into being. You can start by giving people the benefit of the doubt, but this isn’t really trust because it’s overtly conditional.

No, you have to create trust. The only way to do so is through repeated, positive action.

For a manager, the best way to do so is through the regular process of delegation. This is what ultimately led me to the observation that I call the Central Axiom of Management.

Management is the grant of autonomy in exchange for visibility.

Think about what it means to say to someone—someone you ostensibly hired because they had the skills and temperament you felt were needed—“Here are our goals as a team. What do you think we need to do to achieve them?” You’re showing them that their opinion is valued, that they have a hand in their own destiny, and that you are counting on them. That is profoundly empowering behavior.

Of course there’s risk in that. There’s a chance they mess it up. There’s a chance that you mess it up. But that’s where the visibility comes in. Visibility means you’re getting regular feedback and can stay on top of things.

It occurs to me as well that this is a very adult way to handle things. Expectations are high on both sides. Accountability is required. More importantly, this path requires suppressing any fears we as managers may have—fears that invariably arise from our own vulnerabilities and/or ego. Telling people exactly what to do, thinking that you might as well just do it yourself, constantly looking over people’s shoulders…none of these behaviors is healthy or warranted in the first instance. Can situations arise where employees performs poorly and our confidence in them is compromised? Sure. But that’s not the place where we should start.

The Optimal Outcome

The most interesting thing about this relatively simple set of behaviors is that the optimal outcome for each party is to perform well. Game theory tells us that, in a “repeated game,” the optimal, equilibrium-producing outcome is for each person to follow suit based on what the other person did just before.

  • Did I give you clear direction, set expectations appropriately, and let you get on with your work? Then it’s in your interest to deliver well.
  • Did you deliver well and at least meet expectations? Then it’s in my interest to deepen that relationship.

It is easy to see the seeds of trust in this “game.” It is easy to see how repeating this behavior gets us to a place where people feel they are treated fairly and respectfully.

It is just as easy to see the seeds of distrust as well. A manager who fails in her/his charge can create confusion and frustration, which lead to disengagement. An employee who fails in her/his responsibilities should expect a loss of trust, which, if not corrected, should lead the manager to action to preserve the health of the rest of the group.


There are a lot of things that are good to know as a manager, but if you take one and only one thing away, let it be this:

Your ability to give people a fair share by merely providing good input and merely giving them the benefit of the doubt is a non-stop, first-class ticket to excellence.

A quick reminder!

I’m launching the Maverick Manager Masterclass on June 24th!

Find out more here and register for exclusive discounts to newsletter subscibers!

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