Play this game with me: I have R1 000 that is owed to both of us. We’re going to split it and I will decide how. You can decide whether to accept my offer. If you do, we split the money as I suggested. If you decline, no one keeps any of it. My first offer is for me to keep R600 and give you R400. If you’re like most people – according to neuroscientist Dr Matthew Lieberman – you might hesitate slightly but you will take the R400. It seems mostly fair.
Now, instead of the deal I presented above, I propose to keep R800 and give you R200. According to Lieberman, the vast majority of people will opt out of the deal and no one will get any money.
An instinct for fairness
Our brains are wired for fairness and we would rather no-one benefit if both people can’t benefit somewhat fairly. The instinct for fairness is so strong that many people will pay money and go out of their way to seek vengeance if they feel the scales are tipped out of their favour.
The business lessons we learn from brain science about fairness and the applications to your livelihood are many, but these are the most important:
1. If you expect fairness, you will get it.
Examine one of the world’s best statesmen, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, and you’ll see why he accomplished what some dubbed a miracle. He negotiated peacefully with Israel during one of the most turbulent times in the Middle East. He did it by announcing in press conferences, when asked about how he thought negotiations would go, that he fully expected for them to be fair for both sides because he had come to expect nothing less.
In essence, he got the other side to play nicely.
Most people come to the negotiation table presuming a specific role they’ll play. They might believe they’re in the driver’s seat, for instance. If you unfairly assume that you are the driver because you didn’t do your homework, there is going to be a lot of arguing over who gets the steering wheel instead of focusing on the deal. Be proactive, investigate the role of the other person and play into it.
3. Give in and give up.
Go into a meeting knowing your idea will rarely be adopted in its entirety. People will go to the mat over little matters just to make sure you give up something and give in to one of theirs. Prior to the meeting, examine the aspects of the proposal you can live without.
4. If it’s unfair, it’s unsafe.
The brain is scanning all day long to maximise reward and minimise danger. When something doesn’t feel fair, it feels dangerous. The other party will scan for other areas in the proposal to minimise danger and you get negative and narrow thinking in the room. One of your tasks in a negotiation is to assure safety and create it if it’s not there.
There are exceptions to the fairness rule. Some people are numb to its effects no matter how fairly you play. They are the exceptions and you may need to play hardball with them, but it’s doubtful that you’ll feel good about it afterwards. Practise playing by the fairness rules and most of the time you will win – and so will they. Fair enough?