READ SCARF Article 5: The Neuroscience of Unfairness

In the early stages of the pandemic many people purchased more than they needed leaving others without. This created panic buying and the shelves were stripped bare with supermarket unable to keep up with demand. There was public outrage when it became clear that many of the people putting their own lives at risk for the rest of society were unable to get basic supplies after a busy shift in hospitals and care homes. Eventually, the supermarkets had to implement policies that limited the number of items people could purchase, and had special opening times when medical workers could gain access without having to wait hours in a queue.

Recent studies show that when we deem something is unfair it activates a part of the brain called the Insula. The Insula 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.

So, if you have to make tough decisions about your business survival like making some roles redundant, it is critically important that you explain the process and are totally transparent in your approach. Ensure you have clear policies and guidelines in place, make them available to people and talk to them about how you were being as fair as possible. This can reduce the threat response. However you can also create some reward response by outlining the steps in the process which will create some certainty, include some ‘choice points’ so they feel they have some autonomy, and discuss opportunities for them to talk to others and be included in certain activities so they can maintain a sense of relatedness.

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 ‘as if’ from someone else’s point of view or from a more detached and removed perspective, for example, as a customer, a supplier or if you are the chairperson 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 become more aware of your thoughts. It is also about influencing the thinking of others but there will be more about that in future articles and videos.

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.

Many readers of these articles 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 Deep Relaxation exercises and are reporting how listening to them is helping to get things into a better perspective and revitalising their inner resourcefulness – their Inner Director.

A simple and very effective way to raise your awareness of your Inner Director is to practice some basic relaxation for only a few minutes per day. Once you have learned a couple of techniques to relax you can make them your own and use them at any time to step back for a moment. This means you will be able to access your Inner Director more easily, especially when under pressure, and gain powerful insights about the best ways to improve working relationships and therefore performance.

Having access to your inner Director means you can identify how your brain is responding to different situations and avoid over-reacting. But the ability to do this requires a ‘quite mind’. The quicker you can notice that you are being triggered the more you have a chance to calm yourself with a few relaxing breaths and regain access to your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that does your rational thinking and creative problem solving.

Learning to relax using your breath is a critical skill and a great place to start is with a Body Awareness Meditation where you take a few minutes to observe your breathing and then systematically relax your toes, feet, legs and body all the way to your head. Doing this on a regular basis will enable you to become even more aware of what you are experiencing and what is really going on around you. With raised awareness you can respond more effectively rather than just reacting to a surge of neurochemicals and emotional triggers.

I have had two versions of this basic relaxation meditation professionally recorded with an ambient soundscape and they will be freely available to readers of these article for a limited period.

If you are interested in improving your wellbeing, and accessing the power of raising your awareness with deep relaxation and mindfulness just follow the link below and follow the instructions.

If you would like to know more about mindful leadership and how to improve communication, or learn about our robust yet practical system for clarifying complexity, inspiring your people, avoiding common problems and driving performance during uncertain times please click here to book a no-obligation call to discuss your needs.



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Remember . . . stay curious!

David Klaasen

©David Klaasen – May 2016