skip to main content
Business Journal

No Fair!

The instincts about fairness that emerged on the playground also apply to your partnerships in the workplace

by Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller

Several years ago, a scientist at Emory University introduced female capuchin monkeys to money. She gave them granite pebbles and taught them that if they surrendered a rock back to her, she would trade it for a piece of cucumber. Capuchins like cucumbers, and if that were the only deal available, they would trade rocks for cucumber slices almost every time.

The researcher then placed two monkeys in cages next to each other so they could see the bargain made by the capuchin next door. The primatologist approached one monkey and made the standard trade: a pebble for a piece of cucumber. Next, the scientist approached the second monkey and exchanged the pebble not for a cucumber slice, but for a grape. Capuchins like grapes more than they like cucumber slices.

As logical as the need for fairness may be, feelings of being used are often at the heart of what destroys a working relationship.

Seeing another monkey get a better reward for the same action, the first capuchin often got upset. She might "go on strike," refusing to make the exchange in future rounds. She might refuse to eat the cucumber piece even though she paid a pebble to acquire it, and if she hadn't seen the grape trade, she would certainly have eaten it. In extreme cases, she might throw a small fit "such as tossing the token or reward out of the test chamber."

Behaving this way is irrational. The aggrieved monkey didn't hurt anyone but herself by refusing to trade rocks for food or by throwing away cucumbers she otherwise would have eaten. So why did she do it?

"Capuchin monkeys," wrote the authors of the study, "seem to measure reward in relative terms, comparing their own rewards with those available, and their own efforts with those of others. They respond negatively . . . if a partner gets a better deal." Academics call this phenomenon "inequality aversion" or "distributive justice." You might call it evenhandedness, doing right by the other person, or just plain fairness. If fairness is essential for a capuchin monkey, it must be more important and more basic to humans than we realize.

Are both of you getting "grapes"?


Gallup's research did not involve cucumbers, grapes, or side-by-side enclosures, but similar discoveries emerged nonetheless in interviews with people comparing their best and worst partnerships. Several statements about fairness proved crucial for successful collaboration. We asked respondents how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each of these statements:

  • We share the workload fairly between us.
  • We do not have to keep track of who does what and who gets credit for what.
  • We see each other as equals -- one is not better than the other.

Your partnership has little chance of succeeding unless both of you believe it is fair. On a scale from 1 ("strongly disagree") to 5 ("strongly agree"), it takes an average above 3.6 on these statements to reach the range considered "good." Only respondents who strongly agree to all three statements have excellent alliances.

Particularly at the beginning of a working relationship, colleagues cannot avoid making comparisons between their own rewards and those of their counterpart as they decide how earnestly to maintain the collaboration. Even if you have no formal authority over the pay, promotion, or recognition of your collaborator, you should make sure he gets a fair deal. If you are getting grapes, you have a responsibility to make sure your counterpart is getting something better than cucumbers.

On one level, fairness is just common sense. Imagine what would happen if a mother asked her two young children to work together to pick up their toys and then rewarded one child with an apple and the other with an ice cream cone. Moms understand fairness, and they know that "active rejection" from toddlers wouldn't be any more civilized than it would be from monkeys. "Any parent with two or more children needs no formal analysis to be persuaded of the importance of distributive justice," observed one pair of scientists.

As logical as the need for fairness may be, feelings of being used are often at the heart of what destroys a working relationship. This is especially true when one of the two people has the ability to impose terms on the other. When Gallup asked people whether they and their manager share the workload fairly between them, the answers tilted dramatically toward the negative end of the scale. Nearly one-third strongly disagreed. Only 16% strongly agreed.

Without any knowledge of terms like "distributive justice" and "inequality aversion," children quickly learn a series of conventions to maintain fairness. How should they split a piece of chocolate cake? One girl should cut it; the other gets to choose her half. Who gets to go first in a board game? Highest roll of the die starts. How do they choose teams for football? Two captains alternate drafting players. Who gets to ride in the front seat first? "Rock, paper, scissors -- shoot!" Kids know the game will fall apart without these mechanisms. The offended player will announce, "That's not fair!" take his marbles, and storm home.

Worries about fairness arise immediately at the prospect of teaming up with someone else. One high school freshman was stunned when her father told her to expect a teacher to one day team her up with someone else on a term paper. "Do they really do that? What if you have to do all the work?" she asked. "What happens if they pair you up with someone who's a really bad writer and won't do anything?"

Playground rules in the office

There is no evidence that adults outgrow a desire for equity and fair play when they leave the classroom for the cubicle. Although they may paper over their reactions because of office politics, posturing, or waiting for the opportunity to even the score, everyone harbors an inner monkey. Adults may be less likely to whine, throw vegetables, or have a public meltdown, but their responses when asked about getting too much of the work or too little of the reward betray the same kinds of feelings.

Our project required the viewing of hundreds of slides and creating lectures that would go with them. I did about 80% of the work.


"Our project required the viewing of hundreds of slides and creating lectures that would go with the slides," one respondent told Gallup. "I found myself doing about 80% of the work. Since my evaluation was dependent on it, I felt I had to get it done even if I had to do most of the work myself. What it all comes down to is a sense of equity. If two people either work together or divide the work evenly, everything will be fine." She was so frustrated by the experience that she could not write they had "worked together" without putting the phrase in quotes.

When both people in a partnership work equally hard and split the rewards, comments from teammates sound much different: "My lab partner in my last biology class and I worked very well together. We were both good in the subject and good students, so there wasn't one person doing all the work. Neither of us had anything to prove or any ego wrapped up in the assignments, so we didn't care who did what. We were just laid-back. We both got A's in the class."

The wisest partners understand that all the maturity and diplomacy they display hides a core of more primitive reactions. In stressful circumstances, even when decisions are made fairly, comrades' emotions can threaten to derail the relationship.

In 1908, legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton and three other men on an Antarctic expedition -- all four of them nearly starving -- came upon a site where other expedition members had dropped three small pieces of chocolate and a piece of dog biscuit. Their established method for distributing food was for one man to turn his back while another pointed to a portion and asked, "Whose?" Because the man with his back turned could not see which portion he was assigning, the decisions were random -- they were fair. This time, Shackleton got the piece of dog biscuit.

Although he was credited by all his men with incredible toughness and restraint, Shackleton confided in his journal his base motives just below the surface: "I was unlucky enough to get the bit of biscuit, and a curious unreasoning anger took possession of me for a moment at my bad luck. It shows how primitive we have become."

eBay founder Pierre Omidyar made an important equitable gesture when he brought Jeff Skoll on board as his partner in 1996. The men needed to decide how to divide ownership in the new business. Skoll, a Stanford MBA, made involved calculations of the value of the company and the contributions of the two partners. "He had all sorts of analyses," said the founder. Rather than strain at the details, they decided to use a simpler approach suggested by Omidyar. He estimated the work he performed before Skoll arrived to be worth 15% of the company's value. They split the rest evenly.

The sense of internal justice, although difficult to delineate in complex real-life interactions, is nonetheless fundamental for effectively working together. It can be taken for granted when present, but its absence will destroy your shared work. We are all simply grown-up, more civilized versions of the children we were decades ago, negotiating the rules of a sandlot baseball game or trading mowing the lawn one day for doing the paper route the next.

We adults usually aren't as explicit, but research indicates we also disengage and retreat if we feel as if someone is taking advantage of us. Much as the monkeys will throw an apparently self-destructive fit to protest unfairness, people also do irrational things when others violate their sense of justice. In a partnership, it's not what's smart or what's logical that matters, but what's equitable. The emotional reactions of collaborators drive them toward interacting fairly or not interacting at all.

The Eight Elements of a Powerful Partnership

Great partnerships don't just happen. Whether your joint mission is to build a successful company, coach a team, improve the government, do something spectacular for a charity, or any other worthy goal, all successful partnerships share the same crucial ingredients. When all these elements combine, partnerships become not just effective in accomplishing the mission, but also personally rewarding, sometimes intensely so.

Complementary Strengths: Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak, and vice versa. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.

A Common Mission: When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas. When partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.

Fairness: Humans have an instinctive need for fairness. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it is an essential quality of a strong partnership.

Trust: Working with someone means taking risks. You are not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust that your partner will do his or her best. Without trust, it's easier to work alone.

Acceptance: We see the world through our own set of lenses. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences. This can be a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.

Forgiveness: People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.

Communicating: In the early stages of a partnership, communicating helps to prevent misunderstandings; later in the relationship, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two people synchronized.

Unselfishness: In the best working relationships, the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives.


Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller recently completed five years of research identifying and analyzing the crucial dimensions of a successful partnership. Their book, Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life, is the product of that research.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030