Why employers shouldn’t ignore unfairness at work

Perceptions of injustice can damage motivation and performance, says Susanne Jacobs

‘It’s not fair…’ Anyone who has children will know these words well, usually accompanied by tears and stamping feet. Even over what seems to be the smallest of differences the toys can be flung from the pram and the calm is shattered. 

But it’s not just children. We quickly start to throw our own toys out when we perceive we have been treated unfairly. We may have learned to manage our behaviour, but our emotional brain will be stamping its feet loudly. Why do we react so strongly in the face of unfairness? 

Life, after all, isn’t fair. The world is full of inequity. Gender pay gaps, discrimination, not being considered for that promotion or the taxi driver who takes the longer route round. To be treated equitably is a primary need for the brain and is correlated to trust. A sense of unfairness can generate a threat response that can last for days. 

Recent advances in neuroscience have allowed us insight into the impact of fairness on the brain. A lot of the research has used game theory, in which participants receive and can give sums of money. One of the most famous is the 'Ultimatum' game used in studies by Matthew Lieberman and colleagues at UCLA. Participants play in pairs, with the first (the proposer) given a sum of money (for example, £10) and asked to split it with the second player (the target) at a level both can agree on. If the target refuses the offer, both players get nothing. 

From the perspective of the purest, most rational economic self-interest, the target should accept any offer simply because they started with nothing. But most people reject offers that are less than 20-30 per cent of the total – known as the ‘unfair zone’. When they are offered a fair share, as perceived by the target, the reward centres of the brain light up. With the unfair offers, however, areas in the brain associated with contempt and disgust light up. 

In the workplace, responses to perceived injustice often take the form of silent acts that directly affect the other person involved, such as withdrawing help from the offending colleague or manager or doing the work more slowly. Gossip can ensue as the employee seeking justice looks to add collaborators to their cause. We can seek retaliation through acts of revenge to punish the perpetrator, particularly when we believe they have gained over others through their acts.  

Whatever the course of action, the result of unfairness is detrimental to intrinsic motivation and engagement. If a perception of unfairness continues, research has shown that there is a significant relationship to psychosomatic health complaints and absenteeism. Viewed from any angle, unfairness and injustice are performance blockers, injecting risk into decision-making and relationships. 

We may not be able to understand or relate to another’s perception of unfairness in any given situation, but we do need to listen and take heed. Fairness really matters to performance. 

Susanne Jacobs is founder of The Seven Consultancy and author of Drivers: Creating Trust and Motivation at Work