By | July 9, 2018

After reading a paper on fairness recently, I started wondering how many of the problems we face are caused by a perceived lack of fairness.

Queue jumpers. Drivers that don’t abide by the same rules as you. One parent who gets up more than the other to care for an unsettled infant. Your colleague who earns more than you but does the same job. I’m sure you can think of many more.

Nancy A. Welsh’s essay (entitled “Perceptions of Fairness in Negotiation”) proposes that fairness in negotiations can be distilled into 4 basic, competing principles:

  1. Equality (i.e. everyone receives equal)
  2. Need (i.e. those with a greater need receive more than those who need it less)
  3. Generosity (i.e. nobody gets more than anyone else)
  4. Equity (i.e. each person’s share depends on their contribution)

This seems pretty logical and should result in an easy negotiation, right?

Of course not; every negotiation is a complex mix of personal aspirations, status, environment, relationships, and many other factors.

Here are some particularly interesting points reported by Welsh:

  • (Re equity principle) People judge their own contribution as greater than everyone else’s (even when everyone’s contribution was identical)
  • An offer that is readily available, or easy, is seen as less attractive
  • An offer that might be accepted from an ally (or even a neutral person) will often be rejected when coming from an adversary. Relationships matter!
  • If someone feels that they have been treated well during the negotiation procedure (i.e. given the opportunity to tell their story; deem the decision-maker to have listened, cared and been even-handed with all parties involved; are treated with dignity and respect) then they are more likely to view the offer as fair
  • Moreso, people who believe they’ve been treated fairly are more likely to comply with the outcome of the negotiation
  • The perception of fairness affects the respect and loyalty given to the decision-maker (and the institution they represent)

In short, “Fairness is largely a matter of perception” rather than like a game of chess with players making logical moves.

My proposition is that most of our disharmony revolves around a perception of something being “unfair”.

So next time you (or your friend/team/client/colleague) feel annoyed about something, question whether it is about fairness. Are you and the other party using a different principle (e.g. equity vs need)? And what other factors are at play?


You can read Nancy A. Welsh’s Perceptions of Fairness in Negotiation at Marquette Law Review.

Image by Lou Levit on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.