October 20, 2017

Fairness—does that mean equality or proportionality?

Traditional weighing scalesIn relationships of whatever kind, there’s potential for getting in a muddle over this: By “fair,” do we mean “equal” or do we mean “in proportion?”

This is a key distinction in moral psychology developed in Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”—one that evolved over the course of the work he describes and, by implication, not perhaps so obvious.

Many of us may expect individual rewards to be in proportion to efforts put in or perhaps outcomes achieved, rather than equal shares for everyone, irrespective of contribution (assuming equal opportunity). But not everyone sees it like that necessarily.

Which of these is “right” isn’t central here…

The point is simply remembering “fairness” means different things to different people and our response to whatever we perceive as fair (or lacking fairness) is rather deep-seated, partly innate and unconscious, and so it’s powerful. It has the potential to drive unexpected division.

What do you mean by “fair” when you use the word?

And do the people around you mean that too?

Could be worth clarifying.

They don’t know they’re doing it, and nor do we

Group talkingI imagine you’ve had this experience…

Someone keeps repeating a behaviour that causes problems for everyone else. “Why do they keep doing that?” we ask ourselves. “Why do they not see that there are going to be consequences? Why don’t they change?”

The answer of course is they don’t know they’re doing the thing, not consciously anyway. They’re not aware it’s a problem.

If they keep repeating something that actually isn’t working very well, chances are they haven’t realised. So they’re actually doing their best. And they might have been like that for a long, long time.

We might need to help them see the issue somehow. And that might be hard going.

But more than that…

What about us?

What are the things we do that cause problems we’re unaware of?

There are bound to be some.

How do we welcome—invite even—the feedback which would help us see?

How much does a call cost?

Woman reflectingAre your perceptions of relative cost up to date?

I’m struck by how often people comment on the cost of phoning transatlantic. “That’ll be really expensive they say.”

Actually, landline-to-landline, with my pretty average phone contract, it costs about £3 or $5 for an hour—less than the cost of meeting somebody in town for a coffee.

Most of our model of these things gets laid down at a young age and, unless we make an effort, doesn’t get updated as the world moves on. The out-of-dateness of our map can be rather obvious in this area of relative cost.

Some areas are not so obvious.

Which of your perceptions could do with an update?

We don’t laugh at the majority

High Street sceneWe don’t laugh at the majority, because the majority has power.

And we don’t laugh at power, because it’s dangerous. It might throw us out.

But we do laugh at minorities, because minorities are weak.

And we do laugh at weakness because it’s safe.

Minorities are different, and different is funny. Really, it is. Unexpected difference is the basis of humour.

Yes, I know, you’re horrified to think you’re involved.

But we all do it, because it’s everywhere. It’s in our culture and our language, and it’s unconscious, in our norms, the little jokes. Sure, we’re mindful in some areas. But not in others.

Sometimes it’s the little, subtle things that hurt, not the big ones, because we don’t notice, but they do.

I know I’ve made these mistakes. It’s a lifelong effort, learning to avoid them.

For all of us perhaps.

Are you looking in the right place?

Man thinking, looking upwardIt’s a conditioned reaction…

Anything nebulous, intangible and “irrational” we want to fit into familiar tangible, rational and logical processes, usually in the form of paperwork or information on a screen. Then we can process the result, and we can share it with other people.

Or we think we can…

In fact, we might be working in the wrong channel, and looking in the wrong place.

Frequently, the answer we need lies in the intangible, hard-to-pin-down domain of the unconscious mind. To find that answer, we need to stay in that perhaps uncomfortable, not-really-knowing, not-really-in-control, but ultimately more powerful place. Eventually, we can set down what comes to us in the familiar tools of professional and business life, but only once we have the answer, not before.

We can’t map a circular unconscious process onto a linear conscious one and expect the same results. Our subject-verb-object language, among other things, isn’t up to the job.


If we are to be looking in the right place, we need to trust our unconscious processes—our intuition, if you will—and not shift everything into the conscious domain too soon. For most of us, trusting our unconscious is counter to our conditioning and so likely to be a useful muscle to develop.

Our unconscious can’t tell the difference

Woman making an emphatic pointI knew it was a slip as soon as I said it…

I’m sat having coffee and a catch-up with a friend. Getting a little too carried away talking about an issue with a third party, I express some annoyance. My friend on the other side of the table listens sympathetically, but I notice him flinch a little when there’s a little hardness in my words—not directed at him, at least not literally, but as part of what I’m saying about the other—in fact, as if to the other.

You see…

His unconscious mind can’t tell the difference between something said about someone else and something said about him. It responds in the same way. It’s only his conscious mind that says, “It’s OK. It’s about someone else.” (At least, I hope it does.)

Here’s what I learned…

If you need to recount a story in which you say something that’s hard to hear, make sure you break eye contact with your listener at that moment so that the remark is directed away from them. If you have to recount harsh words, say them to empty space.

In fact, it’s not a great idea anyway, for the same underlying reason…

Our own unconscious mind can’t tell the difference either. With anything we say to or about other people, our unconscious mind responds as if we said it to or about ourselves. It doesn’t know the difference. Our emotional state is affected as if the words had actually been said to or about us.

Scientific evidence for this? Something to do with mirror neurons perhaps. I’d say, just see if it fits your experience.

What we do to other people, we do to ourselves. Take care what that is.

How unconscious is your leadership?

Two doctors talkingWe tend to think of leadership as something we do consciously. In fact, it’s not really like that at all.

After all…

As ground-breaking doctor and hypno-therapist, Milton Erickson said “what you don’t realise is your life is mostly unconsciously determined,” meaning we live much of our lives on autopilot. Research says about 90% of what we do, we do unconsciously. If that applies to life in general, then it must apply to us when we are in a leadership role too, and not just to us but to those we lead as well.

You could also say, for that reason, your people will do as you do, rather than what you say, or even, they will be as you are. In other words, the predominant leadership effect is people unconsciously modelling themselves on your unconsciously expressed values and behaviors. That’s if they pay attention at all, of course.


If ever there was an argument for the authenticity of walking the talk, perhaps that’s it. The only way to ensure we lead unconsciously in the way we intend is to be thoroughly authentic.