It’s Not Fair

How many times have you said: ‘it’s not fair’? How many times have you heard others say it? How does it make you feel when you sense injustice? How does it impact your energy and commitment levels? What impact do you think it could have on an employee’s level of engagement with their employer?

Let me tell you about Jane. We were talking about bullying and harassment at work as she was considering lodging a grievance.

She told me that her boss was always asking her to do things that were not in her job description. She said: “It’s not fair. She isn’t capable of doing her own job yet they promoted her. Now she asks me to do the work she should be doing but that’s not what I am paid to do nor do I expect to do it. I would be happy to help out but she is so awful to me. It’s just not fair. She gets more money than me, got promoted and then hassles me to do her job!”

Our fair brains

Neuroscientists have been conducting experiments for over 25 years on what happens in our brains when we experience something as being fair or not fair.

This is interesting research. So often we see people become demotivated and not perform to their best because they perceive an unfairness eg: that someone is getting paid more than they should; that someone has a promotion that they didn’t deserve; that someone got the blame or bore the brunt of management’s wrath for something that wasn’t their fault; that someone was asked to stay back late at work.

Demotivation means lower levels of commitment, lower productivity, poor energy levels and as for creativity, innovation and initiative – well, what do you think?

An Ultimatum

The original experiment in this field is the Ultimatum game, first reported as far as I can see in 1982. It’s been repeated many times by many different researchers and the results seem to come out the same.

Here’s what happens:

Two participants, A and B, are given a sum of money, say $100, to divide between themselves. A has to decide how to split it up. Whatever offer A makes, if B accepts it then they both get to keep their share of the money. If B refuses A’s offer, neither gets anything.

What would you offer if you were A and what would you accept if you were B? The experiments have shown that if A offers B around half, ie $50 then B will accept. And at that time, B’s brain’s reward circuitry (including the amygdala) lights up. They feel OK about the deal.

However if A offers a smaller amount, eg $20 – B will typically refuse.

Curious isn’t it? You would think that if B was acting rationally, B would take the view that something is better than nothing and take the $20.

Instead, what happens is that an area of the brain associated with disgust and pain lights up at the perceived unfair deal. Indeed, some Bs reject the offer outright so that both A and B lose the lot!

When an B does accept a low portion of the $100 and gain something rather than nothing, and even though the offer is perceived as unfair, the experimenters report that B’s fMRI scans show that an area of the brain associated with self-control lights up – the prefrontal cortex.

This is the same part of the brain that we help people learn to engage to be a STAR (Stop Think Act Rewire) in response to The Almond Effect®, when our amygdala sends us a false alarm.

It’s the principle that counts!

The interesting thing is that our brains probably react in the same way as in the Ultimatum Game whenever we feel we have been taken advantage of. We may feel we’ve paid too much for a car, a home, a new suit or even the laundry detergent! I experienced that the other day, when I discovered that I’d paid $50 more for a vacuum cleaner than I needed to because I didn’t notice the department store across the road had the same vacuum on ‘special’.

In these situations our brain senses it wasn’t fair. And it seems to me that there is a struggle going on between our pre-frontal cortex – and our emotions, ie between being practical and logical vs. a sense of what’s right, fair, just. Emotions vs. self control – sounds like The Almond Effect® in another of its guises to me.

As a former barrister, I would love to see research into what’s happening in the brains of litigants who outlay a fortune in the legal system spending far more than the original amount involved saying “it’s the principle that counts”. I suspect their fMRI results would show their limbic (emotional) brain being much more intensely activated than the prefrontal cortex – just as in the Ultimatum Game.

It’s not the money

So let’s go back to Jane. Jane was on a very good salary and enjoyed working for the company. She loved her work. What she didn’t enjoy was that sense of being put upon and being taken advantage of.

Unfortunately too, the manager had some issues around the way she managed Jane and, deep down, had her own fears and insecurities about taking on a role she didn’t feel qualified for. She had never received any people management training and was way out of her comfort zone. That’s another Almond Effect® story for another day.

Jane ended up filing a grievance and she and her manager are scheduled to have a mediation discussion in the coming weeks.

Injustice and performance

In some organizations I have been involved with, ‘give them more money’ has often been the response to deal with issues of poor engagement, demotivated staff, unhappy staff, change fatigued workforces, sub-optimal teamwork – even staff who say they are being harassed or bullied.

What we know from how our brain works is that this is never going to provide a complete answer unless the perceived injustice is truly about financial inequities.

The application of neuroscience research makes it clear that what we have to do is to start exploring what’s going on in people’s perception, with their emotions – and these are not capable of quick fix ‘rational’ responses.

Learning about The Almond Effect® and the STAR model for developing self control is just the beginning.