Should You Care About Fairness?
Insurance Experts' Forum, May 25, 2010
Should you care about fairness? More precisely asked, should you care about the perception of fairness? Most everyone works in groups or teams at their place of employment. You may even head a team or manage multiple teams. Should you pay any attention to how you and others gauge fairness? After all, we all know that the world is not fair.
Let’s start with the premise that good managers and good teammates want to be fair and equitable. There are times that we consciously decide that a situation is unique and should be treated differently. Accommodations are then made to avoid situations that would result in an inequitable outcome—this can be perceived as unfair.
Theoretically, we should focus on our own work, not what our coworker in the next cubicle is or is not doing. However, we tend to assess if we are being treated fairly. Studies show we possess an internal fairness check, and that when events go beyond the norm, we have a response that affects our behavior and, in turn, our relationships.
In the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, authors Ori and Rom Brafman tell of an interesting experiment. Groups of people are divided into teams of two, with each team consisting of a “decider” and a “receiver.” The decider will split a sum of money between the pair, and the receiver can choose to accept or not accept the split.
Two key patterns emerged:
1. Not all cultures responded the same way—for example, Americans and Russians had diverse responses in their view of fairness.
2. There is a point where some participants chose to receive nothing if they thought the split was unfair. (In the Brafman's study, most deciders split the money 50/50).
From my observation and experience in the workplace, social accountability and effort accountability are the two distinct categories to pay attention to. In the social accountability category are the behaviors of attendance, promptness, interpersonal exchanges, task avoidance, etc. When one’s behavior reaches the point that things are “swayed” to the unfair side, either direct or passive resistance from the teams will likely occur; this is where many managers have a hard time seeing and addressing these behaviors.
In the effort accountability category are the work product traits of production and quality. When unfairness is perceived, the team or individual tends to adjust their own work downward. In what appears to be an attempt to reestablish fairness, there is a rebalancing of efforts that sometimes results in lower performance; in turn, impeding progress toward the team’s established goals.
There are three simple steps to address the perception of fairness:
1. Be clear about all expectations
2. Be aware of the gap from actual to expected
3. Actively close the gap by using metrics, scorecards, reviews, one-on-ones, and dashboards
As you can see, communication is critical. And just as critical—and more difficult—is knowing when there is a variance in behavior that needs to be addressed and then addressing it. That, of course, is the age-old challenge of managing people and working as a team.
Clay Ricord is a senior consultant for the Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.
Readers are encouraged to respond to Clay using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at Clay_Ricord@renolan.com
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