Fairness – it matters more than you may think - Michelle Gibbings

When you think of the traits of great leaders, being fair isn’t usually one of the traits that springs to mind.

As humans we are acutely attuned to the concept of fairness. Children from a very early age notice when things don’t seem fair, with the inevitable wail of “That’s not fair!”

This carries into our adult years and into the workplace.

We are acutely aware when leaders treat people differently. We see when people are rewarded and promoted in a way that seems unfair. Of course, what is fair or unfair is based on a person’s interpretation of what’s happening, so perception plays a large part in a person’s view.

Regardless of the merit (or otherwise) of that perception, the outcome is a sustained impact on a person’s motivation and the team’s morale.

Dr Sarah Brosnan from Georgia State’s departments of Psychology and Philosophy and Dr Frans de Waal from the Psychology Department at Emory University examined the behaviour that arises when primates (our closest related species) witness equal and unequal rewards being given.

Their paper, “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” which was published in Nature magazine in 2003, studied the brown capuchin monkeys. Their research found that the monkeys became agitated and refused to perform a task when another monkey (who they could see) received a better reward for doing the same task.

Take a couple of minutes to watch this video – it’s illuminating.

This plays out in the work environment all the time. Think about bonuses and what you get paid. You may be very happy with the bonus you have been given, until you find out that your colleague who you feel doesn’t work as hard as you got more than you.

So while we all know that pay and rewards aren’t the ultimate motivator; they are certainly a de-motivator. People compare themselves to others in terms of outcomes (benefits and rewards) and inputs (effort, time expended, skill level and ability).

I’ve worked in organisations where people were told not to talk about their salary and benefits with their co-workers, but of course they did.

People don’t want to be unfairly treated. If a person believes they work harder than someone else, and yet they are paid less, they’ll be unhappy. While we would commonly see this as fairness, in research terms it is known as equity theory.

As Furnham and Taylor in their book Bad Apples: Identify, prevent and manage negative behaviour at work, state: “Equity theory is concerned with outcomes and inputs as they are perceived by the people involved, not as they actually are.”

What happens in practice is that the greater the perceived inequity, the greater the motivator for the person to try and find a way to restore the balance. How they do this will vary but it can lead to an employee being less productive, taking more sick leave or committing fraud as the person tries to find a way to fix the inequity.

As a leader, you play a key role in ensuring that the amount your team members are paid is fairly distributed, and that people are recognised for their efforts fairly.

Great leaders are able to see value in the difference each team member brings, and to recognise that each person is unique and therefore has different needs. They work to bring out the best in each person, and do this in such a way that people feel valued, respected and fairly treated.

As the respected American journalist, Brit Hume, said: “Fairness is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised.”

Change happens.  Make it work for you.


Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’.  For more information: www.michellegibbings.com or contact michelle@michellegibbings.com.

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