It’s not the money, it’s the principle

April 14, 2015

We humans are not as evolved as we might like to think, and we instinctively care about fairness.

Research on brain functionality suggests that much of our motivation driving our social behaviour is governed by the principles of avoiding threat and seeking reward. Interestingly, our brain uses the same networks for social interactions as for primary survival needs.

According to David Rock, our primary survival needs are governed by the more primitive parts of our brain and operate in a fairly binary mode: feel good -> move toward reward and feel threat -> move away. Our primitive brain networks process threat and reward cues almost instantly and tell us what is meaningful. The layman would say this is a ‘reflex or instant reaction’. To put this in day to day terms…meeting strangers at a cocktail party activates the same brain networks as if we were being approached by a woolly mammoth…threat is imminent!

The SCARF model (David Rock, 2008) identifies 5 domains of human experience: Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others and Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between peopleWhen any of these domains is threatened our primitive avoidance responses kick in (withdrawal, retreat, anger, threat).  Check out his TED talk.  

Fairness is a domain that is particularly acute. In fact, research suggests that fairness is so essential to humans, that we will give up money in exchange for a perceived ‘fairer’ outcome. How many times have you heard the expression “it’s not the money, it’s the principle”;  “it’s not what he did, it’s the principle”.  Fairness is a significant and primitive motivator for people.

In a sports context: a red team plays a blue team.  The red team wins. At the conclusion of the game, the blue team identifies and awards an MVP (most valuable player) to the red team. The player happens to be the coach’s child. The award feels fair. We are happy, we congratulate the MVP.  

On the other hand, if the red team’s coach selects the MVP award and it also goes to his child – it feels unfair. We have an immediate threat response which may be anger, disbelief, or frustration. In these two situations, the outcome is the same but the manner in which the event occurs creates a completely different response from our brain. It’s the principal that counted. Fairness mattered. 

In your day to day office environment, how often is perceived fairness threatened? What effect does it have on dialogue and understanding? What about collegiality? decision making? What can you do to minimize the threat/avoidance response in your team? (spoiler alert – performance reviews are huge ‘threats’ in corporate life).

So what are the implications when facilitating?  How do you encourage people to share openly and freely? How do you prevent someone from feeling threatened and ‘shutting down’? If you spot someone demonstrating signs of feeling threatened, what can you do to make it neutral or rewarding? 

This is a key reason facilitated workshops spend time on icebreakers, warm ups and introductions. We are less ‘threatened’ when someone is no longer a stranger. Another techniques is to record the words of people ‘as is’;  avoid paraphrasing and repeat as many specific words as possible. This ensures people feel heard, thereby lowering threat response.

I’d love to hear from you – what do you do, in your meetings, workshops, 1:1’s to reduce the ‘threat’ response?  

Sources:  

David Rock

http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

Social Neuroscience, SCARF Model and Change Management

http://thehypertextual.com/2013/04/23/social-neuroscience-scarf-model-and-change-management/

 

 

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