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Using Fairness to Drive Success

This article was based on the TED@BCG Talk, “The Surprising Ingredient That Makes Businesses Work Better,” by Marco Alverà:

Marco Alverà – The surprising ingredient that makes businesses work better


The Cost of Unfairness

One of the most common reasons people get upset has to do with unfairness. That’s because unfairness triggers us so strongly that we can’t think straight. We become afraid and suspicious. We feel pain, and we walk away.

Unfairness is a defining issue in our society. It’s one of the root causes of polarisation, and it’s bad news for business. At work, unfairness makes people defensive and disengaged. A study shows that 70 percent of workers in the US are disengaged, and this is costing companies $550 billion annually.


Eliminating Unfairness

Taking that into consideration, removing unfairness and promoting fairness should be a priority. However, defining how to do this can be quite challenging. What does it mean in practice? Is it about more rules? Is it about systems? Is it about equality? Yes, partly, but fairness is more interesting than rules and equality. Fairness works in surprising ways.


Fairness is Equated with Value

At an Italian oil company where Alverà worked, he began to wonder what drove their success, and he discovered that it was fairness. The company created an environment where employees didn’t need to worry about short-term results. They weren’t going to be penalised for bad luck or for an honest mistake. They knew they were valued for what they were trying to do, not the outcome. They were valued as human beings. They were part of a community. Whatever happened, the company would stand by them.


Marco Alvera


Alverà realised that this is the definition of fairness. When people are treated fairly, great things follow. At this company, employees could be true to their purpose, which was finding oil and gas. They didn’t have to worry about company politics, greed, or fear. They could take risks because they weren’t gambling with huge rewards and repercussions. This created excellent team workers because they could trust their colleagues. They didn’t need to watch their backs, and they were having fun.

What this company had created was a fair system where people could do what they felt was right instead of what was selfish, quick, or convenient.  This is a key ingredient for fairness, but it is also a great motivator.


The Science of Fairness

Science shows that when we see or perceive fairness, our brains release a substance that gives us pleasure. However, when we perceive unfairness, we feel pain. Unfairness triggers the primitive, reptile part of our brain, the part that deals with threats and survival.  When unfairness triggers a threat, that’s all we can think about instead of motivation, creativity, and teamwork.


Implementing Fairness

In order to create a fair environment, the first thing leaders need to do is take themselves out of the equation. That means being aware of their own biases to actively promote a diverse culture of opinions and characters.

The next step is a little more procedural. Look at the rules, processes, and systems in the company, that are used to make decisions and allocate resources.  Eliminate anything that’s not clear or rational, and fix anything that’s limiting the transfer of information within the company. Then examine the culture and the motivation for the same reasons.

Keep in mind that no matter how hard you try, it may not be possible to ever get to the real essence of fairness. That’s because the last mile of fairness requires something else. It’s about people’s emotions, their needs, what’s going on in their private lives, and what society needs. These are all questions and elements that are very hard to put into a spreadsheet or an algorithm.


Heart Is the Key

It’s hard to make the personal element of fairness part of a rational decision. Yet, if we miss this, we’re missing important key points, and the outcome is likely to feel unfair. It helps to cross-check our decisions with our fairness centre switched on. Take the time to ask yourself whether the rational answer is the right one–we all know deep inside what the answer is.

Turning on our hearts is the key to getting the best out of people because they can tell it if you care. It’s only when you really care that people will feel safe leaving their fears behind and bringing their true selves to work.


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