No Fair!

 Nothing is fair in this world. You might as well get that straight right now.

- Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Babies as young as 15 months grasp fairness, according to Jennifer Welsh in Live Science.  So does every employee in your organization. (And they may grasp unfairness with even greater clarity!)

When was the last time you experienced something unfair?

What happened?  How did it feel?

Experiences of unfairness generate strong reactions. And the work of researchers like Rock, Lieberman, and Eisenberger explains why.

According to brain researcher, David Rock, fairness is one of the five domains of human social experience (along with status, certainty, autonomy, and relatedness)... and these “social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food or water.” This explains the sometimes survivalist, visceral, fight-or-flight responses we have to perceived unfairness.

Unfortunately, the potential for inequity is great in the workplace. Different tasks and expectations. Varying working conditions. Disparate rewards and compensation. (And it’s this last one that’s a particular sticking point for many employees.)

Classic research conducted by Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA found that research subjects were happier receiving $.50 (when they were sharing $1.00 with a partner) than when they received $10  (when it was based upon sharing $50 with a partner).  It all comes down to perceived fairness.

(And apparently this fairness response is not the exclusive domain of humans. Have you seen the TED talk by Frans de Waal or the excerpt of it that’s making the rounds on Facebook? If not, it’s a must-see for the giggles it will provoke and the vivid depiction of the quick and profound way something that was just fine can quickly become completely unacceptable when the context shifts toward inequity.)

In the presence of unfairness and the strong emotions it evokes, the brain feels like it’s fighting for our lives. As a result, several things suffer:

  • Cognitive functioning diminishes
  • Empathy for others is reduced
  • Problem solving is undermined

The very attributes that are most important for business success demand fairness in a workplace structure or environment that’s rife with (at a minimum the perception of) inequity.

While you may not be able to alter the compensation structure or redesign the office space to turn the individual corner offices into hoteling spaces for the masses... there are three areas that leaders at any level can focus on to cultivate a greater sense of fairness among employees.

  • Transparency: Feelings of inequity flourish in an environment that lacks access to information. Imaginations (and the rumor mill) run wild when the lines of communication are not strong. Generous sharing of what is known (and not known... and especially what you might not want to be known) builds trust.
  • Involvement: It’s far harder to sense unfairness around issues in which one has been actively engaged.  Share the business context and challenges.  Include others in decisions that affect them.  Allow employees to control as much of their jobs as possible.  This builds a sense of inherent fairness while also meeting a host of other fundamental human needs.
  • Expectations: Clarity breeds feelings of fairness. Clear expectations for jobs. Clear goals and performance standards. Clear work rules and norms. Clear systems of universal accountability. Knowing what’s expected - of one’s self and others - and seeing those expectations upheld consistently creates an environment of perceived fairness.

You may not be able to immediately turn ‘no fair!’ into ‘so fair!’... but even small steps and efforts in these areas will go a long way toward minimizing the unfairness response... and freeing up your employees’ brains for more productive activity.

What about you? What do you do to incite a greater sense of fairness in your organization?


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