Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sense Of Fairness

Sense Of Fairness Affects Outlook, Decisions Toolbox

By Shankar Vedantam, WP | 10 June 2008

Graphic: Fairness Matters!

American workers are hurting. The country is in an economic slump, thousands of people are being laid off, and hundreds of companies are retrenching. With house values falling in many parts of the country and with gas prices soaring, many people are struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

The unfolding shakeout might ultimately be good for the economy, but it can be extremely painful for individuals. For companies, managing change is very important, not only for the well-being of their employees but also because to succeed, they need employees who are engaged, enthusiastic and energized— and not burned out.

A pair of psychologists recently evaluated hundreds of employees at a large North American university that was in the grip of painful change. The researchers wanted to find out whether there were factors that explained why some employees successfully weathered the transition and reengaged with their jobs, while others spiraled into cynicism and exhaustion— the classic signs of burnout.

Burnout has been long associated with being overworked and underpaid, but psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter found that these were not the crucial factors. The single biggest difference between employees who suffered burnout and those who did not was the whether they thought that they were being treated unfairly or fairly.

"These fairness issues can be huge," said Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Issues around fairness are highly linked to the anger and cynicism that are linked to burnout." When a worker suffers burnout, she added: "You feel you have been treated with disrespect. It generates enormous personal anger for small things because of what it implies." Affected workers report more mental health problems. Their work can suffer, creating a vicious cycle of a shrinking workplace, burnout and deteriorating work performance. One study showed that nurses suffering burnout provided their patients with inferior care.

Leiter, co-author of the study which looked at 992 employees at the troubled university, said people who sensed they were being treated unfairly were twice as likely to burn out as employees who did not. Leiter and Maslach were particularly interested in people who showed some risk factors for burnout but not others: people who were enthusiastic but exhausted, for example, or who felt energetic but psychologically disconnected from their jobs.

Leiter, an organizational psychologist at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said participants in the study were concerned about downsizing and afraid of being assigned to a job they would not like. The situation was volatile, and people were extremely alert to signs they were being treated [less fairly] than others. "The people who were confident they were working for a fair employer went in a positive direction," he said. "The people who did not have confidence in the employer's fairness tended to go toward burnout."

Maslach and Leiter published their study, "Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement," in the most recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. Their research on fairness dovetails with work by other researchers showing that humans care a great deal about how they are being treated relative to others. In many ways, [perceived relative] fairness seems to matter more than absolute measures of how well they are faring— people seem willing to endure tough times if they have the sense the burden is being shared equally, but they quickly become resentful if they feel they are being singled out for poor treatment [[or even just being "dissed": normxxx]].

One classic way to study fairness is an experiment known as "the ultimatum game." The game involves one person offering to divide a sum of money, and the second person deciding whether to accept or reject the deal.

If the sum is $100, for example, the first person might offer to give away $25 and keep $75 for himself. If the second person agrees, the money is divided accordingly. But if the second person rejects the deal, neither one gets anything. If people cared only about absolute rewards, then Person B ought to accept whatever Person A offers, because getting even $1 is better than nothing. But experiments show that many people will reject the deal if they feel the first person is dividing the money 'unfairly'.

[ Normxxx Here:  As an old reviewer of psychological experimental models, I would suggest that they missed an important variable, people's perception of the 'utility' of the reward to themselves, independent of the absolute value (i.e., a starving person may greatfully have accepted the $1 reward).  ]

Such thinking may be universal. In a 2006 paper published in the journal Science, Joseph Henrich, an evolutionary psychologist who is now at the University of British Columbia, found that people in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Ecuador, Bolivia, Siberia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji all placed a very high premium on being treated fairly.

In every case, people were willing to forgo money in order to keep someone else from dividing it unfairly. Henrich and his colleagues argued that this apparently universal impulse suggested an evolutionary mechanism; the willingness to make personal sacrifices to punish unfair people, they argued, helps make fairness the norm. And over time, a species that enforces fairness might be more successful than a species that allows or encourages disparities [[but this explanation may equally well apply to culture and would have the advantage of explaining cultural differences— as also cultural differences in the perceived value of the money: normxxx]]. An evolutionary [[inate: normxxx]] mechanism might also explain why people have very forceful reactions to unfairness— not merely disappointment, but rage [[rage seems to be a more basic, largely uncontrollable form of anger: normxxx]].

"When you are treated unfairly or disrespectfully, the organization is excluding you from being a real member of the community," Leiter said. "There is something about that that makes people feel really insecure.

"When loyal employees are treated in a way that is [perceived as] not fair, they feel betrayed in a very deep, emotional way," Leiter added. "When you do a lot of work you get tired, but it does not have nearly the same emotional impact as being treated unfairly."


Shankar Vedantam:
Welcome to this online chat to discuss my science page story today that suggests that perceptions of unfairness play a powerful role in whether employees experience burnout. I am happy to take questions.


Vienna, Va.: Great article! It seemed like when you talked about "fair" you really meant "equal." But aren't workers sensitive to equity too? People who [are perceived as putting] in more effort or who bring more to the organization can get bigger outcomes, and that is [perceived as] still fair. How does perception of equity influence feelings of burnout?

Shankar Vedantam: That's a great question, Vienna, and a potentially thorny one. If some employees are actually better performers than others, 'does fairness mean' everyone is treated the same or that everyone is treated proportional to their performance? The researchers did not analyze this issue, but I suspect that one thing that would quickly happen if they had is that they would have found people have very different notions of performance [[and measures of performance: normxxx]].

Everyone might agree that some employees are better than others, but many people who do not work in the limelight do essential things, too. The study, remember, focused on people's perceptions of fairness. It did not examine whether those perceptions were 'true'. People who perceived unfairness were more likely to experience burnout.


Alexandria, Va.: Who was the guy that came up with the idea of work for money, anyway? Can't we all find a more enlightened way to gather food and find shelter? 90 percent of people go to work only because they have to— if they could, they would do something completely different. The system of school-jobs-retirement is obsolete and contrived. People should be free in what and how they work, they should be their own bosses and associate only with equal rights. Somebody come up with a better idea after 2,000 years. Please! [[Isn't that the premise of a 'free' society?: normxxx]]

Shankar Vedantam: Sounds like this question/ comment/ plea is at the intersection of both my articles today! Telling people they don't have to work for money— talk about interventions with a potential for unintended consequences! But I suppose such a move would pretty much eliminate any perceptions of unfairness on the part of employees. (It might also, unfortunately, eliminate the economy.)


Colonial Beach, Va.: Interesting data but look how almost half of the cultures show a sort of "U" shaped function, i.e., decreasing rejection of the deal up a point from "nothing" but after about half, the percent rejecting the deal increases up to, in some cases, almost 100 percent. Clearly, human behavior has many puzzling aspects. [[The "U" shape was probably due to the fact that the utility of the payoff to person B was not factored in.: normxxx]]


Shankar Vedantam: Indeed, the U shaped results you see in the distribution of unfairness is very striking. People from some cultures reject deals that are unfair to them, and essentially agree to being given anything from 40 percent on up. But there are people (from other cultures) who seem to agree to the deal only when neither they NOR THEIR "OPPONENT" is treated unfairly. It is almost as though they are willing to punish themselves for any sign that they are being unfairly benefited. The researchers are convinced these results are not because people didn't understand how the game is to be played. Rather, I understand that these groups are known for their especially strong beliefs about equity.


Washington, D.C.: Can you please expand on your evolutionary explanation? I thought natural selection worked on the level of the individual, not the species.

Shankar Vedantam: Well, there is a book to be written about this question. Natural selection works on the genetic information being transmitted from one generation to the next— it is INFORMATION that is being conserved or discarded. This is the idea in Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene"— it is the gene, the unit of genetic information, that is primarily affected by the forces of evolution and natural selection. [[But 'natural selection' can also work on cultures, in a 'LaMarckian' way, rather than a 'Darwinian' way: normxxx]] I would think that, on a large scale level, species effects would be seen first, followed by effects among individuals.


Arlington, Va.: At my agency, the work force survey results show that people resent the poor performers among us. It seems this is another example of unfairness that causes burnout. Why are managers more concerned about being "nice" than doing their job and getting rid of the non-performers? This seems to be a pervasive problem. [['Human nature', again?: normxxx]]

Shankar Vedantam: This is a variation of an earlier question; again, an interesting point. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that a perception of unfairness is not merely about people who work as hard as you (and are as good as you) being compensated more highly or treated better, BUT [also about] people who are not as good as you being treated the same as you.

As I said, the study only looked at perceptions of unfairness, and I think it is plausible to say that people might sense unfairness BOTH when they are treated worse than their peers and when their inferiors (in terms of productivity) are treated like their peers!


Reston, Va.: I personally feel that I'm treated unfairly because I do not have children, and therefore can be expected to work to the rule, while coworkers with children get away with murder— coming in late, leaving early, contact phone calls with children. My favorite is the comment that because I don't have children, I must have "plenty" of money. But pointing the unfairness out is [perceived by 'others' as] being 'negative' or 'unsupportive' of workers with children, so you can't win!

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the comment, Reston. I guess there really are a lot more perceptions of unfairness than I had assumed at the start...

Arlington, Va.: There's a dirty little secret in many office environments known as having too little to do. Nobody wants to admit it, but a lot of people spend much of the day supremely bored. I suspect this has a lot to do with burnout.

Shankar Vedantam: All I can say to that is, if there was any way these people could bottle some of their time and pass it along to me, I would HUGELY appreciate it. I can't remember the last time I got to the end of a day where everything I wanted to do actually got done. Good days usually involve just having fewer things left to do on the to-do list!

But seriously, the researchers did look at people who had one of two major signs of burnout and then followed these people to see which developed both signs of burnout and which of them eliminated the risk factor over time. One of those risk factors was exhaustion— and I wonder whether some people who you say have nothing to do are actually exhausted and UNABLE to do anything? [[E.g., from boredom?: normxxx]]


Alexandria, Va., also: I think previous Alexandria's point was that if society provided food and shelter (and presumably, health care) people would do work that was more "up their alley". The economy would be different than the one we are used to now, but it would not be destroyed. Some people would be happy with food, shelter, healthcare; some would want to work for small additions (furniture?), some for large ones.

Shankar Vedantam: I think your argument is intuitively appealing, but not sure it is true. I think a lot of people could cut back on their work and live simpler lives [in the present system], but very few people make this choice. I remember hearing about a survey where people were asked whether they were likely, unlikely, very likely or very unlikely to accept new work responsibilities that would detract from their family time and downtime. The results showed that nearly everyone was willing to at least think about working harder if it meant more money/ prestige etc, and that there was virtually no one in the "very unlikely" group at all. So I would argue it is a minority of people who would actually choose to scale back their material expectations and do work they [better] enjoy doing.



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