"My comfort wasn't the most important thing -- my getting through to the other side of difficult feelings was. However long it might seem to take, and however unfair it might seem, it was my job to do it."

–-- Carrie Fisher

On Unfairness

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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  • Henk Hadders wrote:

    Great post, Dan, I deeply enjoyed read­ing it. As it hap­pens I’m now study­ing the issue of “ethical sus­tain­abil­i­ty” of orga­ni­za­tions towards their inter­nal and exter­nal stake­hold­ers. What does “justice and fair­ness’ 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 “fairness” in play. A lot of “fairness & jus­tice” research has been done on inter­nal stake­hold­ers, but more research needs to be done on exter­nal stake­hold­er as well ….as one thing is clear…..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 SJFCLEAD 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

  • Hi Ellen~

    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.

  • Hi Scott~

    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

  • John~

    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!

  • Doug Breitbart wrote:

    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?

  • Hey Doug–

    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.


  • byron murray wrote:


    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

  • Hel­lo Byron!

    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!

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