Want to motivate others? Be fair!

by | Dec 2, 2013 | Blog | 0 comments

tug of war Cooperate versus compete?

If you want to encourage greater collaboration with your team and inside your organization, focus on improving cooperation.

Forget about competition, unless you want to play games at holiday parties or picnics. Tug-of-war is appropriate in those situations, but not in daily work.

That’s my take-away after learning about fairness from the social cognitive neuroscience perspective. (That’s the academic way of saying my NeuroLeadership class just studied how the human brain reacts to fairness.)

In their paper, Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience (2007), Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew D. Lieberman explain that human beings are sensitive to fairness.

We like to behave fairly and be treated fairly. We prefer equity over inequity, especially when we believe the process is fair.

Fair treatment connotes belonging and connectedness to others.

Research studies show that when we receive fair offers or feel that we’re treated fairly, the reward circuitry in our brain lights up.  Also, the brain areas associated with positive reinforcement learning increase in activity.

Individuals also self-report an increase in their happiness with fair treatment. They also feel greater trust.

The act of fairness may be intrinsically rewarding in itself, Tabibnia and Lieberman say.

So what are the implications for organizational leaders?

  • Recognize that money and other tangible external rewards, such as gifts, trips and titles, are just one type of  motivator.
  • Strive to treat people fairly in terms of assignments, policies, time off, attention and perks that matter to people. Fairness is considered its own reward, especially for those individuals who are intrinsically motivated. (Those who are intrinsically motivated do tasks for their own sake rather than to receive external rewards. By the way, other research also shows that those who are intrinsically motivated have better job performance and higher satisfaction. See the journal article, Intrinsic need satisfaction: a motivational basis of performance and well-being in two work settings by Paul Baard and others.)
  • Encourage camaraderie in the workplace. This not only encourages fairness, but also relatedness, and it helps equalizes status. All three—status, relatedness and fairness—are important elements in the SCARF model developed by David Rock, co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute. (As explained in the blog post, Making SCARF a daily habit, the five SCARF domains (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) are the key drivers of social experience. The brain treats these domains with similar intensity as it does physical pain and pleasure.)

All these actions can lead to an environment in which people feel more inclined to cooperate, which can improve collaboration. Improved collaboration in turn can contribute to increased innovation—which becomes a virtuous circle.

Speaking of virtuous circles, here’s a shout out to two connections of mine who have made fairness the cornerstone of their businesses.

Powernoodle is the cloud-based platform that helps organizations make better decisions and solve problems faster. Powernoodle is designed so that individuals participate anonymously. This ensures a fair process in which all voices are heard equally.

In Getting to We: Negotiating Agreements for Highly Collaborative Relationships, lead author Jeanette Nyden emphasizes the value of  developing and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships. The relationships, which are built on fairness as well as other principles, become the foundation of the deals the parties then make.

As Lieberman points out in his wonderful new book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, positive social elements are a “renewable resource.” When we let others know we value them and provide them with a positive, supportive environment, we have more of something, rather than less.

Are you ready to stop playing tug-of-war at work and treat others with respect and fairness?


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