When leaders are developing their communication skills, it’s worth understanding how events around us can trigger a reward or threat scenario in our minds, and what this can do to our ability to think clearly.

Let’s take fairness as an example.  If we feel that we’ve been unfairly treated or taken advantage of, this can trigger negative emotions that can last for days (i.e. as a “threat” to our values on fairness).  When you feel that someone is being fair to you, there is also a feeling of increased trust.  However, if the person you trust  reats you unfairly unexpectedly, the sense of injustice is increased even more, even to the extent of feeling betrayed.

One theory is that the importance of this “fairness” detector in our brains stems from our hunter-gather days, when meals were only available intermittently and you needed to detect who was going to “cheat” you out of a fair share.  The same chemical reactions happen in our brains today, so that when you feel fairly treated you feel “rewarded” and mentally are open to new ideas, are more creative and connect with others better.  But if you feel you are treated unfairly, then the opposite occurs with a resulting downward spiral of misunderstandings, stress and confused thinking.  No wonder then that people who consistently feel unfairly treated in their organisation complain more or feel they have to leave.

Relating this to developing communication skills for managers, I recall two colleagues having a heated debate about performance ratings for an individual who had expressed a real concern about doing a presentation but had done it and done it well.  One wanted to reduce the rating down because the person in question hadn’t wanted to do the presentation, and the other thought that was unnecessary because this person had shown the courage to do it despite their reservations and therefore should be praised.  The heated argument carried on for a good 15 minutes, with neither backing down or understanding the other’s perspective.

Unfortunately it ended up having to be resolved by their boss, which really was not an ideal situation for anyone involved.  However, if they had understood how people react to their own perception of “fairness” being challenged, they could have had a very different and much more satisfying conversation.

For instance, by acknowledging the other’s point of view as being based on their own experience and expectations (eg. in this case, one who enjoyed doing presentations and felt it was a necessary skill for managers compared to the other who wasn’t particularly comfortable doing presentations but had developed over time to improve their skills), they may have come to a better and quicker result, which importantly was also fair for the person they were reviewing.

You may have experienced a similar situation where your sense of justice and fairness conflicted with someone else’s opinion, and you may not have understood how they could come to that reasoning. It’s not always easy to, but as soon as you feel that your or another’s sense of fairness is being challenged, step back, take a few moments and reappraise the situation to understand the other person’s point of view.  By letting the negativity continue, you will reduce your ability to think creatively and you could end up making costly mistakes, let alone potentially spoiling a good working relationship.

Understanding others perspective is vital for good leadership skills and effective communication with your team.  According to research, a sense of fairness seems to be one of the most important needs for people, in order for them to feel motivated and creative in their role.  Appreciating this and adapting your  leadership style to take this into consideration will have a major impact on all those you work with.

To find out more about how coaching can help you develop your leadership skills, including understanding fairness in the workplace, please visit www.assiem.co.uk/executive-coaching.



  1. Pingback: Are you motivationally upsetting or rewarding your employees? | Assiem

  2. GB

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  3. Duncan Cameron

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is excellent blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back.

  4. Pingback: Why You Can’t Ignore Conflict | Assiem

  5. Taylor Connolly

    I have clients and associates that would find the article helpful. Is it ok to forward the article without getting into trouble? Usually the articles are sent out to the public as a newsletter or an rss feed. I am not changing it or hiding the author, simple sending and saying “this might be of interest to you.”.

  6. admin

    Hi Taylor, thanks for your interest. There are a number of share buttons at the bottom of the blog which you could use, but also you are more than welcome to send the link to the blog out to your clients and associates. Kind regards Karen

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