Are You Being Fair to Your Team?


As we move into the second calendar year of the pandemic, organizations are still trying to combat the unparalleled feelings of uncertainty and anxiety among their employees. The high levels of stress employees are experiencing can lead to reduced cognitive capacity, resulting in diminished productivity. Our research shows that organizations have tried all sorts of strategies to address the problem, but they may be missing a more obvious strategy—fairness.

In the early stages of the pandemic, the NeuroLeadership Institute polled 688 US employees from various roles and industries. Through our research, we aimed to understand the psychological impact the pandemic had on workers, and what their leaders can do about it. Our findings suggested that employees felt a pronounced need for decisions to be made fairly.

We explored this finding, and others, in our recent Idea Report. We also provide steps organizations can take to increase feelings of fairness and mitigate the stress caused by the pandemic. Here’s how.

The science behind fairness

At NLI, we use the SCARF® model to define the five domains of social threat and reward (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness). Based on this model, we studied the elements of SCARF that helped employees feel confident in their organization’s ability to survive the pandemic. We found that one of the core psychological needs that led to confidence in employees was fairness.

People prefer fairness as opposed to having situations tilted in one party’s favor—that’s no surprise. But, did you know that the perception of being treated unfairly actually causes feelings of disgust? We can all recall a time when we’ve felt we were treated unfairly at work. We feel slighted because we don’t understand how performance objectives were assessed or know the thought process behind a promotion we didn’t receive.

Yet, only 52% of employees find that in their workplace, explanations regarding decisions were sufficient during the pandemic, and only 37% of that group found their workplace transparent about it in the first place. Interestingly, top leaders are significantly more likely to agree that their organization is transparent – compared to all other employees. This is probably due to the goal-oriented—rather than people-oriented—perspective that leaders often have. Leaders discount the value of communicating how and why decisions are made to achieve specific goals. These mismatches in perspective, and in turn communication, can create tension between employees and leadership.

Creating fairness through transparency

The good news is that leaders can take the extra step to be as transparent as possible about the decision making process to minimize the distress. One way to do so would be to schedule a town hall meeting between leadership and all employees. Allow room for questions ranging from the playful to serious inquiries about the business, policy, and key decisions. This combination of certainty and fairness is deeply rewarding for the brain, and it will motivate employees to achieve the productivity leaders want.

Organizations should create their goals with a prosocial bent; that means making decisions with employees’ and their well-being in mind. Instead of assuming how your employees feel about a particular decision, simply ask. It’s as simple as pulling them aside for a one-on-one conversation, explaining your perspective on the matter, and asking for their input. Doing so helps leaders become more accountable to their teams, seek others’ perspectives, and heighten their attention to detail.

Being fair and transparent can go a long way to mitigate anxiety at work during turbulent times, but you can do much more than that. You can actually use this opportunity to make changes that will serve you long after the pandemic is over.


Author: Malia Thomas