Playing fair isn’t just for kids, it’s a significant non-conscious driver of our daily behavior and experiences.
Our social brain is always monitoring the fairness of our daily interactions. Scientists have found that when we feel something is unfair, it triggers the insula, a part of our brain activated when we feel disgust or contempt. This high sensitivity to perceived inequitable exchange affects how we view and engage in situations at work and at home.
The tricky thing is that what feels fair is very individual, influenced by our beliefs, personal values, past experiences and culture.
At work, our belief in what’s right or deserved is ever-present. Are all team members pulling their weight? Were you acknowledged for something you did well? Have the bonuses been divvied up equally? No? Then that perceived unfairness has been noted by your fairness-favoring brain and can potentially unleash a strong negative response.
In fact, studies show that we tend not to feel empathy toward those we perceive as unfair and can even experience pleasure when we see unfair people suffer. Unfairness is bad for collaboration and even worse for productivity.
The need for fairness brings home the importance of proactively fostering a working environment where experiences of unfairness are minimized. Taking steps to ensure favoritism doesn’t exist on teams, eradicating ambiguous decision-making processes and creating equitable distribution of rewards and opportunities all go a long way to building an environment that everyone feels is fair.
The negative experiences that unfairness generates can impact a culture for years; people don’t easily forget when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly. Instead, leaders need to foster experiences of fair exchange and right practices by ensuring there are same rules for everyone, open, transparent communication, and equitable reward for work and efforts.
Even during times where that’s not possible – for instance, during a large change initiative –providing a rationale for the decisions being made will help people accept a situation rather than resist and reject it.