How fair are you?

Personal Impact

Jörg Köck | May 2021

The 10-Euro Game

Do you remember the 10-euro game we introduced you to last week? It’s a quite remarkable mind game designed to encourage you to reflect on your own relationship to fairness. You may have noticed yourself that it’ s not as easy to be fair as it always seems to be? Which amount did you offer to your counterpart? And what did you consider to be a “fair” offer? Do the two amounts differ? Where does this come from, how do you justify your concept of fairness? First, let’s look at the term and concept of fairness.

How do we define fairness?

Fairness is a term constantly discussed, especially in negotiations, but also in our everyday professional and personal lives.

“That behavior wasn’t fair!”, “My boss gave me a pretty raw deal today.”, “This person negotiated in a really unfair way!” – you have certainly heard these or similar statements from time to time.

However, what does fairness actually mean?

When looking up the term “fairness” in the thesaurus, we find the following definition:

  • the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice; evenhandedness: I have to admit, in all fairness, that she would only be paid for part of the work.

Thus, fairness means that a matter should be balanced and not in conflict with accepted norms. In essence, the virtue of fairness sets moral standards for decisions that affect others. So far, so good.

Now, when it comes to negotiating, no strict, legal rules exist – whatever you feel you can and want to be responsible for is allowed! Now how does this match up with the concept of fairness? How far are you allowed to go – in other words, what does fair negotiation mean?

Fairness at the workplace?

We tend to feel injustice the strongest in the workplace. When money, competition and pride are at stake, both petty and serious injustices are commonplace – whether it’s recognition for someone else’s work, passing the buck, unfair distribution of workload, promotion of less competent people for political reasons – these are some of the situations we face on a daily basis. On top of that, there’s double standards. One may work less and even worse in terms of quality, the other may be late, make mistakes, miss deadlines. Nevertheless, they get the same raise as you. There are strict rules in the company, but when bosses do something that would get you fired yourself, they often only get a warning, if anything.

Tough but fair?

Accordingly, fairness refers to actions, processes, and also consequences found to be morally right, honorable, and just. Is fairness the same for everyone involved?

To answer this question, I would like to describe a few situations:

1.You are in a negotiation/discussion and realize you can pressure your counterpart quite easily, you notice weaknesses, you notice you are in the superior position of power. Do you use this position to negotiate better conditions?

2.In a negotiation you are dealing with a real a**hole – you realize quickly – if you don’t intervene firmly, this person will do anything – regardless of whether this hurts your feelings or not – to get their own way. You feel uncomfortable, attacked, oppressed – do you accept this behavior?

3.A person constantly changes their point of view depending on which option is most profitable for themselves at a given moment. How do you deal with this situation? Do you perhaps (unconsciously) keep your distance?

Which way would you decide in these situations? Perhaps issues such as the quality of the relationship between the parties involved also come into play here?

How does fairness relate to your public image?

Let’s now return to our 10-euro game. If you were playing the game in front of a group, would you offer the same amount as if you were playing in private? More specifically, for what reasons might this amount differ? Our experience shows – played in front of a group, a partner often receives 5 euros, in private the offers tend to be lower on average.

An obvious reason for this is that we pay more attention to our external image in front of a group of people than if it is “only” about the relationship with an individual person. We might never see that person again, and the relationship is not really that important – so we can excuse a tougher way of negotiating or a more radical offer. However, if we want to maintain a good relationship with the other person, our offer is most likely going to be different.

To some extent, this is because understanding that relationships are based on both “give” and “take” is crucial to precisely developing those relationships. So, if I want to maintain good relationships with the people around me, the interaction cannot be one-sided. Ultimately, why this is crucial to our well-being? A long-term study from Harvard1 conducted over nearly 80 years has confirmed that the key to promoting our happiness and well-being lies in nurturing relationships.

Defining dimensions of fairness?

As we can see, when it comes to fairness, there is no “one-size-fits-all” concept. Fairness seems to be very dependent on context and thus also on culture to a certain extent – not only when we look at contexts in the area of business – private life, but also on the dimension of male – female. Situations are often handled completely differently here, so it is important to think carefully. Only if you assess the context correctly can you act in a fair manner – so before you act rashly, try to analyze the situation you are in and adjust your actions accordingly.

By the way – you can learn more about the 10-euro game in our e-learnings on “Negotiating” and “Decision-making” in our Better Solutions Academy.

Limited rational understanding

Behavioral scientists and psychologists believe that a person will choose the option that offers them the greatest possible benefit on the basis of their own values ( benefit optimization), using heuristics (rules of thumb) and their own limited cognitive abilities. These do not necessarily have to be monetary or other intangible values; altruistic reasons can also be involved.

Conclusion

The moral duty to be fair imposes constraints on our judgments and actions. Understanding what is or is not fair turns out to be much more complicated and complex than it appears from the perspective of the person feeling wronged. Even though the underlying concepts of fairness and justice are simple, almost intuitive, applying them in everyday life has proved difficult. Distinguishing between genuine injustice and self-serving justifications is now increasingly difficult. It rather seems whenever an individual is denied something – be it a job, a promotion, a contract – protest follows. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “one man’s justice is another man’s injustice”.

1 https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/grantandglueckstudy

Jörg Köck

... has been an independent management consultant, trainer and coach for almost 20 years and has been managing director of BETTER SOLUTIONS Coachingconsulting GmbH for six years. Before that he worked in specialist and management positions in the purchasing departments of mechanical engineering companies. His focus in training and consulting is on negotiating and establishing sustainable agreements – in management, purchasing and teambuilding.

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