“Life’s not fair” is one of the most oft-repeated phrases in the English language. Everyone from high school coaches to cranky grandfathers imparts this blunt wisdom at some point, usually to youngsters experiencing disappointment.
This conversation on fairness often extends beyond childhood, however, and even into the working world. In fact, organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently lent his voice to this view when he acknowledged that certain job interview questions are unfair. Grant argued that behavioral questions such as, “Tell me about a time when you overcame a workplace challenge,” put young people who hold little professional experience at a disadvantage.
But business isn’t about fairness. People who aspire to become leaders can’t fall back on expectations of fairness when suppliers are late with their shipments or clients fail to pay invoices on time. Founders and company leaders address the reality of a given situation, regardless of whether they’ve been wronged; clients and stakeholders won’t give them a pass because of “unfair” market conditions or vendor performance. They expect results, and that’s what founders deliver.
It doesn’t matter whether life is fair.
A young person interviewing for a job may not have significant work experience to discuss with a hiring manager. But he or she can draw examples from other areas of his life, such as volunteer work or school leadership activities. Answering the question confidently illustrates an ability to think outside the box, even in uncomfortable situations. And that’s what leadership potential looks like.
When children fail a test or experience the pain of being cut from a sports team, many parents react by telling their kids those losses weren’t their fault. Oftentimes, they blame the teachers or coaches for being biased and unfair. Most parents think that shifting the blame softens the blow and protects their children’s confidence.
But giving clout to fairness disempowers kids. Telling a child she lost a game or didn’t receive a reward because the referees or judges “weren’t fair” teaches her there was nothing she could have done to change the outcome. It gives her a pass to make excuses and play the victim rather than taking responsibility for her circumstances.
The same holds true for recent college grads who are job hunting for the first time. Saying “it’s not fair” that they didn’t get the job provides shallow consolation and does little to improve their prospects in the future. To help children become confident leaders, parents should avoid gripes about fairness and instead focus on the factors within their kids’ control.
Raise victors, not victims.
When children focus on external influences on their success, such as a teacher’s grading system or an interviewer’s tough questions, they relinquish their autonomy. Why should they study harder or hone their interview techniques or practice a few extra hours a day if their success is in someone else’s hands? This mentality, known as “below the line thinking,” also lets them off the hook if they don’t get the results they wanted. It’s much more comforting to say, “It’s not me, it’s them” than to own up to one’s shortcomings.
Here’s the thing, however: Accountability is a defining trait of strong founders. Parents can help their children become empowered, proactive leaders by guiding them away from the fair/unfair paradigm. Here’s what to do instead:
1. Frame the conversation to understand rather than blame.
The next time your child comes home in tears from disappointment, don’t let “It’s so unfair!” be the end of the conversation — or, ideally, part of the conversation at all. Invite him or her to share what happened, then discuss each aspect of the situation. Why did the teacher give the grade she did? Why did the coach choose someone else for the team? Why did the judges award first prize in the science fair to someone else?
The point here is not to blame, but to help children see that they’re not powerless. If they could have changed the outcome, they can achieve more optimal results in the future. According to a Queensland University of Technology study: Parents who shift the blame toward everyone but their children warp their kids’ sense of reality, degrade their confidence and prevent them from developing resilience and problem-solving skills,
2. Look beyond external obstacles to create growth opportunities.
When kids think they’re being held back by unfair teachers, coaches or peers, they can’t see a way forward. Unless they can force these people to be more fair or reasonable, they think there’s simply no way they can succeed. So they give up and learn to make excuses instead of coming up with a solution to their problems. People who grow up without learning to deal with failure become reality-avoidant adults who lie and exaggerate to get their ways, according to Growing Leaders. It should go without saying that these types of people rarely become great leaders.
Work with your children to look for solutions to their problems. Perhaps they were trying to earn a top student award in their class but lost out to someone else. Rather than saying, “Oh, that student is a teacher’s pet,” encourage your child to get to know that other kid. Suggest that your son or daughter become study buddies in order to learn from this classmate.
Or schedule a meeting with the teacher to get ideas on how to help your child grasp concepts more effectively. Disappointment offers many growth opportunities, if your child (and you) are willing to stop wallowing and take advantage of them.
3. Focus on the good instead of unfairness.
Children pick up on their parents’ beliefs, though they don’t always interpret them correctly. In a 2016 study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that among 100 Bay Area students studied, all correctly predicted their parents’ opinions about failure, but not about intelligence. Kids pay attention when you tell them that their failures weren’t their fault, but they don’t necessarily assume that you believe they’re capable and intelligent.
Your children’s opinions will mirror your own, so be vigilant about the messages you convey. Instead of dwelling on unfair judgments or your children’s shortcomings, talk about what they’ve learned from the experience and how they can do better in the future. This approach emphasizes strategy and skills-development over the tendency to react with a critique.
In sum, teaching your children that life isn’t fair is a non-starter for raising founders and leaders. Great leaders don’t question whether their circumstances are fair or unfair; they evaluate problems and setbacks, learn from them and strive to avoid them next time. Emphasize action and empowerment in the face of failure and you’ll teach your children to become victors instead of victims.