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.