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Tag: Brain and fairness

Fairness – working it well

This week in the second part of our look at fairness, guest writer Geoff Callard, discusses how workplaces can be more fair.


For our primitive ancestors, fairness was a matter of survival.  Fairness ensured that members of the community would cooperate and share resources, especially during times of scarcity. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand how important the concept of sharing scant resources is from an evolutionary perspective and how important it is to detect ‘cheaters’; those who promise to share but do not deliver.  In fact Stephen Pinker in the book ‘How the Mind Works’ thinks that our fairness response comes from our need to trade fairly.

While the way we live has changed dramatically, our human brains are still hardwired to respond positively to fairness and defend against unfairness. Whether we perceive we are dealt with fairly or not drives us very rapidly to treating people as friend or foe. In the modern workplace a perception of fairness will lead to cooperation and collaboration, allowing us to work together and be innovative and creative. A lack of fairness drives us quickly in to hyper-arousal, defensiveness and suspicion.  It reinforces a silo mentality where tribes are quickly formed to defend against perceived enemies.

We are at a time when there is intense interest in the health of the workplace.  There is not only evidence that an unhealthy workplace costs in employee absenteeism, turnover and disengagement, but there are also the risks of worker insurance claims and potential legal action against employer negligence.  Issues of lack of autonomy and loss of control are bound up with unfair treatment and the health impacts can be both traumatic AND without the clear types of tell-tale symptoms of other health conditions, hard to quantify and manage. This is where issues of workplace stress, anxiety and depression come to the fore.

These are three characteristics – scarcity, individual job focus and invisibility – that enable organisations to actively create and perpetuate workplaces that are inherently unfair.

1.       Scarcity

There is a distinctive ‘unfairness’ psychology that can develop in people who experience scarcity of resources.  Many workplaces deliberately create a ‘scarcity mindset’ in the short-sighted belief that it will encourage frugal (cost-cutting) behaviour, even when it is detrimental to the individual, for example, the company that publicly trumpets a constant rise in their share price while at the same time relentlessly pushing cost-saving measures on to its workers..  It sends a confusing message to workers that triggers a survival mode in which they must prepare for the workplace equivalent of drought and starvation.

Through poorly executed cost-cutting and disproportionate focus on insignificant measures of ‘improvement’ these companies make even the most basic amenities and facilities difficult to access through, for example, overly-bureaucratic and/or inadequate requisitioning processes.  Workers learn their survival depends on their ability to ‘hoard’ – knowledge, expertise, equipment, ideas, and so on.  These would be bad enough if one only looked at employee’s reactions to the inherent unfairness, but contriving the environment to exploit worker behaviour drives other highly dysfunctional behaviours.

Scarcity increases stress and anxiety and studies show that the scarcity mindset affects intelligence and the ability to make decisions that are good for us.  This is often seen in the many unpaid overtime hours that low-level (i.e. minimally-paid) managers put in to work.  Like the debt-laden person who goes on a reckless shopping spree, these managers make their position worse, as the more hours they work the lower their hourly rate drops, then the more stressed they are and the more out of kilter becomes their perception and reality of a healthy work/life balance.

As people become slower-witted and weaker-willed the scarcity mindset becomes entrenched, and they are unable to take the very actions that will improve their and their organisation’s position.  Rather than see the psychological damage being caused to individuals and the cost of an unhealthy workplace culture, these companies feel entitled to the gains they have made at people’s expense.

2.       Individual job focus/lack of inclusivity

Many, if not most, workplaces still labour under the illusion that the path to greater productivity is through a win/lose relationship with workers.  A worker that ‘wins’ a pay rise, for instance, causes a ‘loss’ to the company – one that the company will want to ‘win’ back somewhere.  The organisational approach to ensure the company ‘wins’ is to create an exclusive environment, that is, one that lacks inclusiveness.

Systems such as ‘targeted’ selection, job descriptions and competency-based assessment are specifically designed to enable the company to exclude people in a way that appears fair and therefore socially, ethically and legally acceptable.  Because the ‘exclusion factors’ are more important than the ‘inclusion factors’, i.e. the criteria are used to identify how people may be excluded not how they could be included, they promote an environment in which unfairness can thrive.

An experiment was conducted where three people – as avatars – played a computer game in which a ball was tossed between all three.  Halfway through, two of the participants began to toss the ball between themselves, excluding the third.  Excluded players registered high levels of activity in the area of the brain  that responds to pain.  The brain creates a fear response to exclusion that can cause a whole range of reactions, the human equivalent of an animal baring its teeth just wanting to ‘get out’.  In the workplace the fear response can manifest in ways such as passive-aggressive behaviour, departmental rivalry or office politics.  Status plays a huge role here and managers can easily create cliques that exclude those who don’t quite ‘fit’.

On the other hand, being treated fairly and inclusively means people have much greater capacity for thinking, planning and collaborating.

3.       Invisibility

It is not just that there are no immediate symptoms of unfairness, many workplace systems are designed to normalise unfairness, so that effectively unfairness gets to hide in plain sight.  Hiring practices are inherently unfair because they do not allow any person that can perform certain job requirements equal access to the job.  They are designed to filter out all but a select group of people such as those that are already working, those that are unencumbered by carer responsibilities, those that are native speakers of the local language, for instance.  The same goes for people selected for redundancies.

The thing that is most interesting about unfairness in the workplace is that unfair practices are meted out by people – people who are as susceptible to the pain of unfairness as the next person.  We humans seem to readily develop a blindness to empathy and remove the human element out of the equation – perhaps as a defence to being subjected to unfair treatment. It is a frequent criticism of ‘Human Resources’ that the ‘people’ function of the organisation is often characterised by its focus on policy and programs rather than empathy and genuine flexibility.

However unfairness does not have to be the ‘default position’ for organisations.

Look at ‘Valve Corporation’, the video game company who made the news when its employee handbook surfaced.  In this they say; “We’ve been boss-free since 1996.  Imagine working with super smart, super talented colleagues in a free-wheeling, innovative environment – no bosses, no middle management, no bureaucracy.  Just highly motivated peers coming together to make cool stuff. It’s amazing what creative people can come up with when there’s nobody there telling them what to do”. 

Or the case of Bob Chapman, who ran a large manufacturing company in the Midwest USA called Barry-Wehmiller, described by Simon Sinek in his recent TED Talk:

“In 2008 Barry-Wehmiller lost 30 percent of its orders overnight, and needed to save 10 million dollars, so, like so many companies today, the board got together and discussed layoffs. Bob refused. You see, Bob didn’t believe in head counts. Bob believed in heart counts, and it’s much more difficult to simply reduce the heart count. So they came up with a furlough program. Every employee, from secretary to CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted, and they did not have to take it consecutively. But it was how Bob announced the program that mattered so much. He said, it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot. Morale actually went up, they saved 20 million dollars, and most unexpectedly and quite spontaneously people started trading with each other. Those who could afford it more would trade with those who could afford it less. People would take five weeks so that somebody else only had to take three.”

It seems when people feel safe and protected by the leadership in the organization and there is an explicit message of fairness backed up by action, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.


Making ‘People’ Work thanks Geoff for his two-part series on fairness.  I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.

Connect with Geoff on Linkedin.

Fairness – it’s all in your head

This week’s post comes courtesy of guest writer, Geoff Callard.


I recently worked on a large IT implementation project with a team including a hand selected group of ‘Subject Matter Experts’.  These were eight of the organisation’s young stars – selected as part of their career development path.

Within two months of the project ending, five of the eight had left the organisation.

Why?  Predominantly because their sense of fairness had been violated by the organisation’s inability to keep to its promise; of the eight, six had been returned to jobs that were much the same as those they had left to join the project, despite two years of taking on significant responsibility and developing their skills and experience.

This is just one example of how organisations (often unwittingly) betray their people’s sense of fairness. In fact issues of fairness are pervasive and can be triggered by many things including a perceived inequality of treatment, lack of respect, lack of consultation, work not being recognised, unwillingness to help with special circumstances or apparent low concern about employee well-being.

What does Brain Research Tell Us About Fairness?

In an experiment by Golnaz Tabibnia and M.D. Liebermann at the University of California, participants were split into pairs and given money. One participant was given the responsibility for dividing the money (e.g. 50/50, 60/40 and so on); the other could choose to accept or reject the split depending on whether they thought it fair or not. If the offer was rejected the participants would receive nothing.

Rejecting the offer occurred more frequently as the split became less, well … fair. Why? It seems our brains are wired for fairness and we would rather no one benefit if both people can’t be treated fairly.  In this experiment and many others like it, the reward centre in the brain (the striatum) will light up more when the offer is fair even when no additional money will be gained.  On the other hand unfairness activates the anterior insula, the part of the brain associated with feelings of disgust.

The research also suggests that the neural mapping for fairness is similar to that of the more ‘primary circuits’ in the brain for things like food and sex.

In a twist to this experiment, participants at the California Institute of Technology took part in a simulation in which they were asked to distribute food to a group of orphans in Uganda. (As a sidebar they actually did raise thousands of dollars from the research).

When they were able to give food to the children, the study participants’ orbital frontal cortex, the reward region of the brain, lit up. When instead they had to take food away, the insula region was activated.

Steven Quartz the author of that study suggests, “…the emotional response to unfairness pushes people from extreme inequity and drives them to be fair”.  This observation, he adds, suggests that “our basic impulse to be fair isn’t a complicated thing that we learn.”

In yet another study variation ‘rich players’ were asked to distribute money as they saw fit to ‘poor players’.  The brain activity of ‘rich’ players indicated they preferred to close the monetary gap, while the ‘poor’ players seemed to prefer transfers that boosted them up toward the other players’ monetary level.

“Overall, it looks like these regions were responding most when the outcome would be the most fair, and the least when the outcome would be the least fair,” said the author of the study, Elizabeth Tricomi, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

It seems even animals have a rudimentary preference for fairness.  In one of Frans de Waal’s experiments Capuchin monkeys reject being ‘paid’ with cucumber when they see another monkey paid in grapes.  Take a look at the YouTube clip; the rejection is a wonder to behold.

The experiment has been replicated many times.  In a Nova Science YouTube clip: ‘Do Animals have morals’, Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, demonstrates one rat setting another free so they can share a snack of chocolate chips.

What are the Implications?

Issues around fairness can cause emotions to run high; whether its trigger is political (look at reactions to the 2014 Australian federal budget); or more personal (our reaction to when someone wants to cut into OUR lane during peak hour traffic).

David Rock in his wonderful book ‘Your Brain at Work‘ warns that we often underestimate the importance of fairness and can be blindsided by the intensity of our response to unfairness.

He confirms that perceiving unfairness generates intense arousal in the limbic system which essentially tracks your emotional relationship to thoughts, objects and people.  It reacts to unfairness the way it does to a primary threat and impairs your ability, basically, to think straight.  Accidental connections, for example, become easier, causing you to misread someone’s intent leading to an altered perception of events in turn leading to a rapid downward spiral.

On the other hand fairness is rewarding. The human brain responds to being treated fairly in the same way as it responds to winning money and eating chocolate.  Being treated fairly turns on the brain’s reward circuitry and is connected in the brain to relatedness and increased trust.  It makes you more open to ideas and more willing to connect, creating a great state for collaboration.

Tabibnia and Liebermann suggest that social reinforcers like fair treatment are more likely to increase intrinsic motivation, which predict better job performance and satisfaction.

So, if the desire for fairness is in fact a fundamental driver for humans what does this mean for the way organisations are structured?  If our reaction to unfairness is so strong and has such a limiting effect on our ability to reason, connect and perceive, then what are we building in to our culture and infrastructure to help ensure fairness in all our dealings with staff, customers and suppliers?  How much impact does a perception of fairness have on customer satisfaction, for example?

How much do we expect fairness in our dealings?  Are we really transparent in how we work?  Are we still playing favourites and being sucked in to office politics?  As leaders, how accessible are we? Do we, for example, give credit generously?  How fair are our systems and processes?  Is evaluating performance a few times a year ensuring fairness?

Scott Halford, author of ‘Be a Shortcut’ says, “There are exceptions to the fairness rule.  Some people are numb to its effects no matter how fairly you play.  They are the exceptions and you may need to play hardball with them, but it’s doubtful that you’ll feel good about it afterwards.  Practice playing by the fairness rules and most of the time you will win — and so will they.  Fair enough?”


Connect with Geoff Callard on LinkedIn.

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