Fairness Matters

Today we welcome Nicole Harris as a guest blogger. Nicole is a Business Development Director for Maritz Motivation Solutions. Through her passion for the human sciences, she specializes in helping companies connect, engage and motivate all of the people they touch to drive better business and better lives.

Over the years, I’ve helped organizations design various motivation programs – incentivesrecognition, and consumer loyalty. One of the questions that I ask myself as well as the client is “If you were a participant in this program, would you think it was fair”? Often the response comes in the form of a shrug and even some grumbling around “life isn’t always fair”. When it comes to motivating people and impacting behavior change, fairness matters – a lot.

When something doesn’t seem fair, either for yourself or for someone else, it triggers what I like to call our sixth sense – the gut. When things seem fair your gut doesn’t make much noise. But when faced with something that seems less equitable (for either yourself, or someone else), you can feel it, and it triggers all sorts of other emotions as well: anger, resentment, hostility. Scientifically we know this, and we also know that this starts at a very early age. Case in point? My quest to find the missing cordless phones in our home.

My last house was a multi-level home, and we had a cordless phone system which included 4 receivers. Given that we had 3 levels, I felt a 4-receiver system would work well and eliminate the need to run from one end of the house to the other to answer the phone. However, this assumed that we could actually find all 4 receivers, which never seemed to be the case (I think they had joined the missing socks and were having one heck of a party somewhere). One day, as I logged my steps running from one end of the house to the other as the phone continued to ring, I decided that the time had come to find the missing phones and I knew just the two people to do it. Enter my 13 and 10 year old sons.

I knew that if I simply said I needed them to find the missing phones I wouldn’t receive much enthusiasm (note: messaging also matters – a lot – but we’ll save that for another blog). Having earned my Master Designer status from The Maritz Institute, I was well-versed in human motivational theories and practices, so I decided to design a game where they would find the receivers. These boys thrive on competition (who can call “shotgun” first, who wins family game night, who made the most shots in driveway basketball – you get the idea). My design? “There are 3 missing receivers. I will pay $5 per receiver to whoever finds them”. And off they went, squealing about how rich they would be, smack talking to one another. And I sat there – smugly telling myself what a genius I was. Not two minutes later, my 10-year old marches back downstairs and throws himself on the couch – obviously defeated.

I asked “What’s wrong? Has your brother found all of the phones already?” He then proceeded to tell me he was “done”. My game “wasn’t fair”. His brother was taller than him and faster than him and he had “no chance” of finding a phone. With no competition, my older son soon lost interest as well. Quickly I realized that my “genius” idea had fallen short because my participants didn’t think that the rule structure was fair – so they checked out. The “what’s in it for me” wasn’t great enough to overcome the perception that I was being unfair.

Like any good designer, I went back to the drawing board. “OK – let’s try this again: Same objective – find the three missing phones. This time you must work as a team, and if all three phones are found I will give each of you $10”. Sure – I had to increase my payout a bit. But for the next hour those two boys worked together and SCOURED the house. Not only did I have an uninterrupted hour to myself, I also had all 4 phone receivers within 60 minutes. That’s a win in my book.

As you’re designing your next program, ask yourself the question “If I were a participant in this program, would I think it was fair”? See what your sixth sense says as well. If the answer is no, or it isn’t sitting well with your gut – go back to the drawing board. When it comes to motivating people – regardless of how old – fairness matters, a lot.


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