The very word, “unfairness,” if you slow down and let it sink in with you for a moment, is like a needle touching a wound. You may feel your stomach tighten, the product of a primary social threat. As the last term in David Rock’s famous SCARF model, it represents one of the most potent sources of pain the human brain knows, while it’s polarity, fairness, turns out to be even more important to people in some circumstances than money.
We do seem to be living in a time when unfairness is on the rise as a facet of our culture, mirrored by increasing moral outrage. Whether it’s the war on the poor or the privacy rights on the internet, the unfurling of white supremacy, the threatened loss of health care or attempts to undermine environmental protections for capitalist gain, these issues, all of which represent a broad failure of care for others, add needle after needle to the wound and create an ongoing sense of threat.
As an organizational consultant, I am concerned not only about our society, but also about how legitimized unfairness increasingly becomes a norm at work, as well. What happens in society seeps into organizational life. We’ve all heard the homily that “life is not fair.” (Get used to it, Snowflake). But this is different. This is about giving wild permission and assent to those who treat others unfairly as a means of personal and political achievement, who use unfairness as their success formula. Whether that’s a matter of ideology, greed, competition or merely a power play hardly matters. I’m thinking here of Wells Fargo’s misbegotten culture of unattainable sales goals leading to ethical infractions and retaliation against employees who called the ethics hotline. I’m thinking of United Airlines very stupid blunders in the name of unseating paying passengers. I’m thinking of Bill O’Reilly’s ouster — not for sexual harassment — but for being found out by the New York Times and losing lucrative sponsorship dollars. The broader culture mingles and informs organizational cultures and vice versa. As Shane Ryan expresses it, “You’re Not Mad at United Airlines; You’re Mad at America.”
Needle after needle form the backdrop, a reflection of a larger system and culture. And then something happens in your world at work. You get cut off unfairly by a manager in a meeting. You take home work over the weekend that someone else really ought to have done. A project you worked hard on, executed beautifully, gets criticized, mostly for what seem to be political purposes. You are warned that performance expectations are rising in the face of impending layoffs that seem to be for no good reason. Someone else is promoted into a job you believe you should have been selected for. The sense of unfairness gathers and gathers, creating inner pressure to do something, but then, even more unfairly, you know if you try you’ll likely be labelled a ‘problem child’ or worse. So you suck it up and take it home (while complaining in the background), all in the name of surviving unfairness so you won’t lose your job.
Encountering clients in this fix, there’s a lot to talk about. Unfairness is a terrible thing and goes deep, touching off parts of our personal histories we’d prefer not to revisit. Old pain from moments of betrayal. Points of personal rejection or weakness. Ancient anxieties, guilts, depressions. And sometimes dealing with the belief that this is really our own fault, not noticing as we bend over backwards to be fair to others how we are drinking the very poison that will end up later in the body as passive-aggressive resentment and stress.
Assuming that the client doesn’t want to quit outright, I find myself pointing in three directions, encouraging the client to make some choices: 1) get unhooked and “let the system be the system;” 2) fight back authentically; 3) lead through a combination of the two. Of course this oversimplifies the client’s circumstances, but in doing so we can explore together the difference between what should happen and what can happen.
1. Unhooking and “letting the system be the system.” Being hooked means living the unstable ground of one’s own negative emotions, inflamed perceptions and private judgments, brooding about what to do. Getting unhooked emotionally means challenging the internal judgments and stories that come with what is unfair, letting go of the sense of impotence that leads to rage. It’s about not letting the unfairness drive unconsidered revenge, competition, and self-justification, however civilized or polite or elegant the form. However, this is also more than just “picking your battles” or so much Goosfraba. It’s an opportunity to step back in a meaningful way to reflect deeply about what is under your skin and why. There may be times when reflection is enough to rise above the situation and salvage what’s really at stake, which is your integrity. Not getting a promotion you want is tough, for example, especially when the promotion seems political, but better to step back and consider before actively — or unconsciously — undermining the person who got the job.
2. Standing up to fight. Fighting back authentically means you are not pretending to go along with something that violates you. It’s one thing to accept the fact that somebody else got the job, and this is a political decision — it’s quite another when “political” is actually code for discrimination or something else that so deeply offends your personal sense of integrity and is so compromising that failure to act is self-destructive. The challenge is translating the offense into action in a way that helps transform muddled hurt into a clear passion for change. Fighting fairly means calling out unfairness openly, actively attempting to influence those who perpetrate the unfairness, and acting to disrupt the system while not operating in an unfair or hidden way yourself. It may involve resistance, but not violent resistance (which would indicate you are still hooked). The rightful name for this approach is “personal advocacy” and there are consequences that go along with it.
3. Leading. Leading is advocating for fairness as a cause that extends well beyond yourself. This means both that you are unhooked and able to fight fairly — and the issue has become meaningful to your overall larger life purpose and destiny. Moreover, your way of transforming hurt to passion, your method of standing up to fight, your presence inspires. Because it does, you elicit the support of others and give them confidence to stand up, as well. To lead means gathering others to the cause. Often that has something to do with the way you hold and express a vision and your personal willingness to take calculated risks in the name of “what is right.”
Considering these three routes to dealing with unfairness naturally leads to three straightforward questions around the unfairness you face:
“Can you unhook?”
“Are you willing to fight back?”
“Do you want to lead?”
Depending on how risky the issue, many want the first, not everyone wants the second enough to act, and only a few truly are called to the third.
Your own integrity must be your guide in answering these questions. If you can’t unhook, I’d encourage looking at your alternatives closely and what the impact of that is on your mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health.
If you are not willing to fight back, I’d encourage you to look at your level of collusion in a system that may be perpetrating unfairness.
And if you don’t want to lead, I’d ask why not.
There is risk in all of these paths, and risk in failing to follow through with them, too. To me there is no dishonorable choice if one is truly conscious and intentional about it. You don’t have to unhook, fight back or lead. All of that is your choice and your challenge.
There’s a story about these dilemmas that comes to mind. An environmental activist gets an audience with the Dalai Lama. He asks, “Dalai Lama, how do I go about saving the earth?” The Dalai Lama’s reply was simple, “Not with anger.”
I think we have to ask ourselves these three questions rather deeply, and if we are not ready, what inner and outer work we have yet to do.
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Great post, Dan, I deeply enjoyed reading it. As it happens Iâ€™m now studying the issue of â€œethical sustainabilityâ€ of organizations towards their internal and external stakeholders. What does â€œjustice and fairnessâ€™ mean in that domain? For me this means that organizations will have to address three issues: distributive justice/fairness, procedural justice/fairness and interactional fairness. Only when there is a positive performance outcome on all three, there is true â€œfairnessâ€ in play. A lot of â€œfairness & justiceâ€ research has been done on internal stakeholders, but more research needs to be done on external stakeholder as well â€¦.as one thing is clearâ€¦..the social contract for sustainability between Market, State and the Commons is completely broken. Be well. Henk
Henk — so great to hear your voice here. Thank you for taking a moment from your busy schedule to comment. I’m certainly glad you are doing the “ethical sustainability” work — it sounds as if it could provide a vital foundation for considering how to heal aspects of the contract. May your findings be publicized widely and the movement is strengthened accordingly.
Much appreciation to you!
All the best
Having experienced several episodes of what I judge to be unfairness in different workplaces, this essay resonated with me. The suggestions to unhook, stand up for oneself and lead are well-taken. I might quibble with the choice of words to headline the second item (“fight”), but the description of personal advocacy aligns with my understanding about skillful handling of such situations.
The identification of ancient anxieties is especially resonant. My father agreed to relocate from Rochester, NY to Hartford, CT when I was very young with an unwritten promise that he would be promoted to branch manager. When he arrived, he discovered someone else had been made branch manager, and although he took it in stride, I suspect he internally struggled for the next 25 years with disappointed expectations and — in my judgment — misplaced loyalty. Some of the impacts played out in my childhood, while others have since played out in my professional life. I consciously decided I would not accept unfair treatment any place I worked.
I have found myself in several situations where I felt I was being “passed over” in favor of colleagues (or prospective candidates). In each situation, I have personally advocated for a promotion. In two situations, the manager with whom I discussed the relative merits of my advancement generally agreed that I was qualified, but decided not to advocate on my behalf due to a combination of their inertia and the bureaucratic requirements to pave the way for advancement. In both cases, I left soon after that became clear.
In the most recent example, my manager responded to my expression of concern about unfairness by immediately beginning the process of assembling a case for my promotion. This completely reversed the feelings I had been experiencing of feeling undervalued, and strengthened my commitment to the organization.
I mention this here because I know many of your readers are not only victims of unfairness, but managers who may be in a position to do something about ensuring that the people who report to them are treated fairly, and who may not recognize how much a feeling of unfairness can serve to motivate an employee to look elsewhere for “resolution”.
In closing, I wanted to share a 1998 study that revealed some fascinating results regarding people’s prioritization of relative standing or position within a system, Is more always better?: A survey on positional concerns, by Solnick and Hemenway. Among the findings: half of the respondents preferred to earn $50K if most of their peers earned $25K rather than earn $100K if most of their peers earned $200K, and two third of respondents preferred to receive praise twice from a supervisor if peers received none rather than receive praise 5 times from a supervisor when peers received praise 12 times.
It seems that perceptions of — and reactions to — relative unfairness go deep, and in some cases may appear poorly aligned with economists’ model of human operating in a way that maximizes their individual utility (without regard to the status of other individuals in their peer group).
Wow — great post Dan, and I especially like your questions to guide people into entry points they can best handle on this growing ethical problem related to a lack of fairness.
In my Online MBA course at SJFC — LEAD INNOVATION WITH THE BRAIN IN MIND, I ask all grad students to identify an “unfair” place at work, and then to propose an innovation that will restore fairness for the entire organization.
They literally apply new neural discoveries into a related innovation that allows them to re-imagine a more ethical and fair situation and then help to create, become and lead that change in a way that benefits all. We have a blast together and we also support the change for one another.
Would you agree that a counter move to greed and unethical bullying or unfairness — would be an innovation that uses ethical hum an intelligence to lead a finer future… So grateful for your leadership Dan! Thanks! Ellen
Hi Joe –
Thanks for your stories and observations about unfairness in the workplace. I particularly like your emphasis on encouraging managers to see how fairness concerns lead to people leaving. There are many ways to talk with people who were not promoted, offering feedback and encouragement and specific ideas for improvement, but it’s clear that many managers are just not very comfortable with that sort of conversation and so rationalize away what really is an important opportunity to build allegiance through a developmental partnership. I was glad to hear your most recent experience was better.
What’s extremely clear is that fairness issues are deeply embedded in us, in our level of motivation and our memories, linking even to our conditioning as children regarding the way we’re liked to be treated in the workplace.
All the best
I love your idea of helping people reimagine their workplace and then be part of the change. That’s perfect. The “reimagining” is closely related to a vision or dream — and letting it become meaningful and specific engages the miracle of manifestation — we act in ways that bring us what we want rather than the opposite. Congratulations for a brilliant technique to liberate us from quagmires of the heart and spirit! And thank you so much for dropping by!
All the best
These 3 questions and the reflection they invoke were very helpful to me tonight, Dan. Thank you.
Much here that I needed in the midst of some of the challenges I am dealing with in the workplace. I ask myself to also consider the role I have played in perpetuating certain ongoing scenarios or how my attempt to absorb the hits without an adequate response leads to ultimately to anger and passive-aggressive behavior to relieve the pressure. I will spend more time with these questions and see where it takes me. I am always looking for things I can read that get me out of my own head and offer a new perspective. You are one of the writers who consistently provides that for me. Thanks again.
I’m glad the post resonated and was helpful, and I’m honored by your kind words given your own exceptional work and writings. I also find that “getting out of my head” is an important part of the learning process — getting old thoughts and voices out of the way so that insight can come. The brain apparently needs the heart (and soul) to do its best thinking. Much good luck to you on the journey! And thank you so much for taking a moment to share a comment here.
All the best
Dan as with most of your stuff, I love this. As I read, I recalled Meg Wheatley’s “islands of sanity” which seems to have become increasingly important to me and others. Unhook, let the f**ked system be the f**ked system it is…and then adequately unhooked and detached, I can be free to warm up to my spontaneity and creativity to keep going and to come up with something that the world actually needs (hopefully doing that with others and not in isolation).
Love to you
Yes, I have thought about Meg Wheatley’s comment many times, as well. It means to me we really can take a much higher degree of creative responsibility for our own experience in workplaces that are broadly dysfunctional. (The addition of the expletive is perfect). Thank you so much for taking a moment to remind us all to “warm up to [our] spontaneity — that’s a lovely phrase for remembering who we truly are!
All the best and love back to you!
Great piece Dan. Just brought to surface for me by Henk, and his comment and work which I applaud.
I can’t help but feel the concept of “fairness” often ia a construct used either as a sword or shield, reflecting core truths of entitlement or blame by the person framing the statement. It’s that fairness being in the eye of the beholder thing. My cognitive bias is that each person controls and decides what their boundaries and tolerances, actions and interactions be, in relation to those around them, and vice versa. I think the standing up concept sets up a duality choice which is no true choice in fact. It always takes at least three things to choose between for there to be true freedom of choice, no?
So, from a place of 100% empowerment, discretion, and choice, the question is, what do each of us choose in the face of trying circumstances, from a centered place of being our highest selves maybe?
Thanks, as always for your insightful comments. As I mentioned in the body of the post, the three options I articulate are an oversimplification — they just set up a framework for discussion around which there are as many variations as people and circumstances. Getting unhooked is precisely achieving some level of emotional distance around wherever the client has drawn up a set of boundaries. It may be subjective but it is often very deeply felt, and if David Rock is right, it’s a physiological reaction that’s going on. In the end I think we may end up in similar places — around choosing to be our highest selves. This is only a path to get there. If it is helpful for some to experience these options as defining some useful steps in a process, I’m happy.
Having said that, I do feel that this topic of “unfairness” is especially pertinent right now because so many feel unseen and unappreciated for their native capacities: their judgments and insights, the talents they thought they were bringing to the world, their sensitivity and love, the gifted things they have created through their arts and crafts, their genuine care for other people. And so, as a consequence, they may also be struggling to see and appreciate themselves, too. This leaks out so often — I see it on the internet all the time — with others’ combatively rather than gently sharing their ideas and perspectives. In trying to identify a thread, that sense of unfairness came through to me as a potential entry point, you know, to the healing and trust that is always present if we let it be there. And judging from reactions to this post, it seems like, for whatever reasons, I struck a nerve.
As always, appreciation to you for adding much to the conversation, Doug. You know how much I value the way you can shape a new perspective.
Another thought provoking “notice.” Several things come to mind over unfairness and the idea of fairness itself. I have heard people in organizations I have worked in use this language when in actuality the unfairness in really about justice. So it is a balance with justice that is organizational with a set of rules, guidelines, procedures that are hopefully clear, concise and unambiguous. Look at the chaos at the national level. The rules and regulations are changing or being attempted. This has a ripple effect as you say throughout society and especially in organizational life. The rules governing the justice of these situations are changing and having an affect on fairness. Finally, one of the things I learned from a mentor many years ago was “Make the differences you can and don’t waste time on the differences you want.” Your three questions pose this very well for me. Thanks
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful comment. I think you are right that part of what is happening is that the system of justice, which is built on commonly understood rules and practices has been the devil’s workshop. When that happens, and we no longer trust the system, when we begin to be confused about what is fair, the trouble begins. This isn’t to say people can’t have differing views of what fairness is (or justice itself). But when things are twisted so far that they mean their polar opposites, then, increasingly we only have our subjectivities to rely upon — and each other as a community. Unfortunately, many people, including the President, seem to be wholly without a community, and then “what is true for me is the only thing that IS true,” so to speak. That’s where so much drift in our society seems to be.
Here’s to sorting it all out, my friend!