Why Playing Fair Sets Us Up For Failure

An interesting commentary posted on CNN.com by Julian Zelizer caught my attention last week. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He outlined his own personal strategy for how Democrats could win the 2012 election. The key, says Zelizer is fairness.

And he’s not talking about fighting fair in campaign sound bites. He was talking about building the Democratic campaign around a platform based on fairness. The only challenge is this: people have different ideas of what is “fair.” And unless everyone has the same standard of fairness, trying to play fair is a losing game.

A few months back, I attended a conference where a speaker addressed the concept of the “standards of fairness.” One mistake mediators sometimes make when approaching a group in conflict, is when they say “we’re going to come up with a solution that’s fair.” Everyone nods their head. Absolutely, they want to come up with a solution that’s fair. The only problem is, everybody’s definition of “fairness” is different.

When we say we’re going to do what’s “fair” and we aren’t speaking the same language of “fairness” people get riled up because they think you’re not actually being fair. Here are the three standards of fairness. See which one you recognize as yours:

1. Everybody gets an equal share. 50-50 split. This is called the “equality-based” standard of fairness.

2. Everybody gets a share based on equity. I put in this amount, you put in that amount, whether it’s money, or effort. Therefore we should get a share based on what we put in it proportionately. This is called an “equity-based” standard of fairness.

3. Everybody gets a share based on what they need relative to what other people’s needs are. This is called a “need-based” standard of fairness. You have more already, so you should get less. I have less right now, so I should get more.

Every time you start to have an argument with someone and the sentence gets thrown out “that’s not FAIR!” stop and ask them: what would fair look like to you? Then you’ll learn what language they’re speaking. I’m more of an equity based person. My producer, Jim is more of an equality-based person.

Here’s what happens if you’re not speaking the same language of fairness. Let’s say I invite Jim and his wife to join me and a date. I know Jim’s an equality kind of guy. We ALWAYS split the check. That’s just our pattern. On this night, though, I’m in a flavor-sensation seeking mood, so I’ve ordered several different dishes. As a result, what Jim and his wife ordered is about $60 less than what my side of the table ordered. When the check comes, without thinking about the difference in the cost of what we ordered, I say, let’s just split the bill and we’ll call it even.”

Now, Jim’s saving up for college for little Josh, and that extra $30 (his share of the $60 difference) was earmarked for the college fund. So now he’s got a conflict. His natural standard of fairness is 50-50. He mindfully chose not to spend so much on dinner so he could put more in savings. And now he has to go against his natural standard of fairness and ask for fairness based on “equity sharing.” Or he can go along with the 50-50 split and be resentful because he ordered what was in his budget and what was ordered and consumed by my side of the table wasn’t of equal value.

It’s important to always speak your microscopic truth about what you see as “fair” in a situation, and why. By owning the fact that “normally, splitting the bill 50-50 would work for us and the reason we ordered what we did was because this was the amount we had set aside for dinner tonight,” for example, you create a resolution that brings all parties inner and outer peace.

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