The BBC documentary video “Capuchins: The Monkey Puzzle,” shows how a monkey reacts to unfairness: When a companion monkey receives a better reward, the monkey loses his composure and would rather go hungry than accept a less than equal reward.
This sense of fairness is hard-wired in humans as well. A recent brain study from the Karolinska Institute and Stockholm School of Economics shows that our brain has a built-in mechanism that triggers an automatic reaction if someone refuses to share equitably. In the study, subjects play a game whereby one player is asked to decide how a sum of money is to be shared between them. The other player can take the proposed share or decline. If the player declines, neither player receives anything. When a player proposes an inequitable 80/20 split, the other player declines, preferring to lose the 20 percent share and punish their partner in the process rather than accept less than a 50/50 split.
The study showed that the impulse to react aggressively and punish the player who suggested the unfair distribution of money was directly linked to an increase in activity in the amygdala, a set of neurons which plays a key role in processing emotions. A sense of fairness is so hard-wired in us that it trumps self-interest.
Fairness is often a question of perception, so while we may do our best to practice fairness, others may not always view us as fair. Of all the leadership qualities, this is perhaps one of the hardest to practice on a consistent basis. Here are a few tips to help you be fair in the workplace:
1. Keep a fairness behavioral checklist
In The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It, and Why It Matters, authors Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin outline the three key relationships that are found in a great workplace—one of which is fairness. This is defined as “the degree to which employees feel that there is a level playing field.” The book provides a 19-point Fairness Behavioral Checklist to help you create an environment where equity, impartiality and justice exist. Entries include items such as: I ensure that people understand the factors influencing their pay and I let people know what’s needed to seek promotions in my department.
2. Unseat the power behind the throne
In workplaces, there is sometimes one individual who informally wields a great deal of power, which is independent of position or title. The person is known to have the “boss’s ear” which gives him or her an unfair advantage over everyone else. Often, this person is feared because of their perceived power to possibly harm or hinder someone’s career. If there is such a person in your entourage, consider the effect that this might have on the sense of safety in the team and reshuffle the deck to give everyone an even hand. It’s the right thing to do.
3. Avoid creating favorites
Are you seen to favor some people over others? This is often experienced as having one set of rules for one person and a different set of rules for another. Do you unwittingly reward sycophants? Marshall Goldsmith, North America’s premier coach, asks four insightful questions in this video which will help you determine if you are unwittingly encouraging this behavior and in the process, run the risk of being perceived as creating favorites. Distribute your attention, time and recognition across a wide group of people in your organization.
4. Involve all stakeholders in the hiring process
By involving others in hiring a new member to the team, we not only create transparency in an important process of office life, but we also signal that we value everyone’s input on the team. It’s a powerful way to create equality and engender good will, not to mention increase the odds that we end up hiring the right person.
5. Discourage politicking
While you may loathe and shun office politics, consider a common situation that pulls you into the game. It’s triangulation. This is when two individuals have a problem but rather than solve it themselves, they come to you, each one independently. You find yourself pulled into the drama and having to take sides. Establish a reputation for discouraging this practice and encouraging team members to communicate openly with each other to solve issues.
6. Shine the light on someone else
Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing in life is to know when to forego an advantage.” As leaders, we often have a lot of perks and advantages. Once in awhile, choose a well-deserving subordinate and give them the choice spot; for example, send them to the coveted conference, or let them attend an important meeting on your behalf.
7. Give credit generously
Every person who does the work wants to have their stamp on it, just as every artist likes to sign his painting. For example, while it is not always feasible to recognize everyone who toils in the background to create a report for someone else, strive to unearth the efforts of everyone who contributed. Nothing cements a relationship more than giving someone who is invisible credit for their intellectual and emotional labor in a project. Set the example yourself and ask the same of your direct reports. This is the most elevating, and often the least practiced form of fairness.
Developing the sensitivity to truly understanding the emotional power of inequity aversion is an important tool in our leadership toolkit. It makes us more attuned to people’s emotions in the work place. We commonly hear the expression: “Life isn’t fair; get used to it,” but this doesn’t mean we have to accept it. If you create condition where your constituencies can depend on the fairness of your organization, you will create a great workplace.