Actions speak louder than words.  Many businesses have a set of values but they are often seen as irrelevant and even a source of disgust by staff.  This is because they don’t see the connection between the stated values and behaviour of senior management.  For example; I know of one business where ‘Professionalism’ and ‘Respect’ were Values that the MD wanted people to live up to, and yet he would sometimes demand that certain staff were to be ‘got rid of’ because he didn’t like them or felt they weren’t any good.  When staff realised he was saying things like this, often dependent on his mood, it not only created fear it also created a deep sense of unfairness.

Recent studies show that when we deem something is unfair it activates a part of the brain called the Insular.  The Insular is involved in intense emotions including the response when you eat, or even think about having to eat, something disgusting.  There is now evidence that a feeling of fairness is a critical element of our social makeup, as important as food and safety. 

Even as important as Money

In one experiment by Golanza Tabibnia at the Carnegie Mellon University he found that people would rather go without getting any money than seeing another person get an unfair amount.  In another experiment it showed that people’s reward centres light up a lot more when they receive $5, if they know it’s from a pot of $10, than if it is $5 out of $20.  So it seems that a sense of fairness is even more important to us than money.

This also applies to situations were people feel that they are treated differently, for example, where some high performing sales people are allowed to get away with coming in late or not following the rules and where other staff are reprimanded for similar behaviour.  It can also apply where some staff are not pulling their weight and the manager does not address their underperformance.  While the manager may be avoiding the discomfort of confrontation they are causing a deep and damaging sense of unfairness and disgust, in the rest of the team.

To trust or not to trust

On the plus side, a sense of fairness creates a powerful reward response activating dopamine cells deep in the brain the way a good meal or an unexpected bonus might do.  You also get a feeling of connecting safely with others and it enhances trust.  An increasing sense of fairness will also increase your levels of the happy chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin; these create a positive, solution-oriented emotional state that makes you open to new ideas and collaboration with others.

The trouble with the feeling of unfairness is that its effects are often seriously underestimated by management.   In fact most employment tribunals are due to people perceiving that they are being treated unfairly and that management are not taking it seriously enough.  This can lead to dire consequences.

Perceiving unfairness generates intense arousal of the Limbic system, our old mammalian brain.  Once this is activated you become pessimistic and more narrowly focused and it means you can make accidental connections.  So if one person is treating you unfairly you can generalise it to others and believe that everyone is being unfair to you.  This seriously undermines trust and starts a toxic blame game.  Before you know it everyone believes everyone else is being unfair.  For example, it is frequently triggered at work when staff believe management are being unfair because they won’t give a pay rise and management think staff are being unfair by demanding a pay rise when sales are down and cuts have to be made.  This may also be the underlying cause for so many long and tortuous legal disputes where neither side can tolerate the feelings of unfairness and will often spend many thousands of pounds to win a case over a few hundred pounds.

Get a different perspective

Being able to manage your response to feelings of unfairness is a key skill at work because the world is not fair and the markets still often rewards unfair behaviour.  So having the skill of noticing what you are feeling and then thinking about your thinking can give you a significant advantage over others. 

If everyone else is operating from their Limbic system you can stay open minded, remain positive and make more brain connections per hour.  This means you can be more creative and solution-focussed while others are narrowing their view, only seeing the problem and that it is unfair.

However, you only have a few milliseconds to respond when your unfairness buttons are pressed and you notice your arousal increasing.  By being able to put your emotional state into words; i.e. that you are feeling unfairness, or a lack of choice and therefore autonomy, or perhaps a breakdown in relatedness or a sense of uncertainty, you can dampen the limbic arousal and make better decisions.

If that does not work, you can try to reappraise the situation by looking at it from different perspectives.  This means taking a more objective view and seeing things ‘as if’ from another’s point of view or from a more detached and removed perspective, for example, as a customer, a supplier or as if you are the chairman or an investor in the business.  However, reappraisal, or reframing, takes up a lot of brain power and effort.  If you would like to become an even more agile thinker you may want to practice thinking about your thinking by doing some simple exercises.

Managing your Brain

The key to success as a leader or manager is all about ensuring that you are managing your brain and able to think about your thinking.  It is also about influencing the thinking of others but there will be more about that in future blogs.

In order to manage others effectively you need to be able to manage yourself.  If your people are getting stressed or defensive, explore how it may be due to their perceptions of fairness.  Perhaps you can help them see what is going on from a different perspective so they understand more about the situation and why certain decisions have been made.

By raising awareness you and your people can respond more effectively to what is going on rather than just reacting to a surge of neurochemicals and old emotional triggers.

Many hundreds of readers of these blogs are accessing a better way of thinking about their thinking and increasing what is becoming the key to success in management today: increased self-awareness and mindfulness.  They have downloaded our Basic Relaxation exercises and are reporting how listening to them is helping to get things into a better perspective and revitalising their inner resourcefulness.

The two free downloads are currently available for a limited period on our website. To get your personal download click here and follow the instructions.

If you would like to know more about how to improve communication, engagement and motivation in your team or learn about our robust yet practical system for avoiding common problems and driving performance please contact Amanda on to arrange a no-obligation call to discuss your needs. 

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards

David Klaasen