The surprising ingredient that makes businesses work better | Marco Alverà

The surprising ingredient that makes businesses work better | Marco Alverà


For me, it was not being invited
to a friend’s wedding. At first, I didn’t really mind. I thought he was having a small reception. But then I kept meeting people
who were going to the same wedding, and they weren’t as close
to the groom as I was … and I felt left out. That really sucked. It felt really unfair. For my daughters, Lipsi
and Greta, it was last week. They were taking turns
massaging their mom’s back with a toy for back rubs, and then one of the girls felt
that the other girl had a longer go. That’s when I walk into the room to find Greta in a rage,
shouting, “That’s not fair!” and Lipsi in tears, and my wife holding a stopwatch to make sure that each girl
had precisely one minute on the toy. So if you’re anything like me or my girls, the last thing that upset you probably also had to do with unfairness. That’s because unfairness
triggers us so strongly that we can’t think straight. We become afraid and suspicious. Our unfairness antennae stick up. We feel pain, and we walk away. Unfairness is one of the defining
issues of our society, it’s one of the root causes
of polarization, and it’s bad news for business. At work, unfairness makes people
defensive and disengaged. A study shows that 70 percent
of workers in the US are disengaged, and this is costing the companies 550 billion dollars a year every year. This is, like, half the total
spent on education in the US. This is the size of the GDP
of a country like Austria. So removing unfairness
and promoting fairness should be our priority. But what does it mean in practice? Is it about more rules?
Is it about systems? Is it about equality? Well, partly, but fairness is more
interesting than rules and equality. Fairness works in surprising ways. 15 years ago, I left a US investment bank to join a large Italian
state-owned oil company. It was a different world. I thought the key to getting
the best performance was a risk-reward system where you could give the high performers
bonuses and promotions and give the underperformers
something to worry about. But in this company, we had fixed salaries and lifelong jobs. Careers were set, so my toolkit wasn’t very effective, and I was frustrated. But then I saw that this company
was producing some pockets of excellence, areas in which they beat the competition in very tough, competitive sectors. This was true in trading, in project management — it was very true in exploration. Our exploration team
was finding more oil and gas than any other company in the world. It was a phenomenon. Everyone was trying
to figure out how this was possible. I thought it was luck, but after each new discovery,
that became less and less likely. So did we have a special tool? No. Did we have a killer application
that no one else had? No. Was it one genius who was finding oil
for the whole team? No, we hadn’t hired a senior guy in years. So what was our secret sauce? I started looking at them
really carefully. I looked at my friend, who drilled seven dry wells, writing off more than a billion
dollars for the company, and found oil on the eighth. I was nervous for him … but he was so relaxed. I mean, these guys
knew what they were doing. And then it hit me: it was about fairness. These guys were working in a company where they didn’t need to worry
about short-term results. They weren’t going to be penalized
for bad luck or for an honest mistake. They knew they were valued
for what they were trying to do, not the outcome. They were valued as human beings.
They were part of a community. Whatever happened,
the company would stand by them. And for me, this is
the definition of fairness. It’s when you can lower those
unfairness antennae, put them at rest. Then great things follow. These guys could be true to their purpose,
which was finding oil and gas. They didn’t have to worry
about company politics or greed or fear. They could be good risk-takers, because they weren’t too defensive and they weren’t gambling
to take huge rewards. And they were excellent team workers. They could trust their colleagues. They didn’t need to look
behind their backs. And they were basically having fun. They were having so much fun, one guy even confessed that he was having more fun
at the company Christmas dinner than at his own Christmas dinner. (Laughter) But these guys, essentially,
were working in a fair system where they could do
what they felt was right instead of what’s selfish,
what’s quick, what’s convenient, and to be able to do what we feel is right is a key ingredient for fairness,
but it is also a great motivator. And it wasn’t just explorers
who were doing the right thing. There was an HR director who proposed
that I hire someone internally and give him a managerial job. This guy was very good,
but he didn’t finish high school, so formally, he had no qualifications. But he was so good, it made sense,
and so we gave him the job. Or the other guy, who asked me
for a budget to build a cheese factory next to our plant in Ecuador,
in the village. It didn’t make any sense:
no one ever built a cheese factory. But this is what the village wanted,
because the milk they had would spoil before they could sell it,
so that’s what they needed. And so we built it. So in these examples and many others, I learned that to be fair, my colleagues and I, we needed
to take a risk and stick our head out, but in a fair system, you can do that. You can dare to be fair. So I realized that these guys
and other colleagues were achieving great results,
doing great things, in a way that no bonus could buy. So I was fascinated. I wanted to learn
how this thing really worked, and I wanted to learn it also for myself,
to become a better leader. So I started talking
to colleagues, to coaches, to headhunters and neuroscientists, and what I discovered is that what these guys were up to
and the way they worked is really supported
by recent brain science. And I’ve also discovered
that this can work at all levels in any type of company. You don’t need the fixed salaries
or the stable careers. This is because science shows that humans have
an innate sense of fairness. We know what is right and what is wrong before we can talk or think about it. My favorite experiment has six-month old babies watching a ball
trying to struggle up a hill. And there’s a helpful, friendly square
that pushes the ball up the hill, and then a mean triangle
pushes the ball back down. After watching this several times, they ask the babies to pick, to choose what to play with. They can pick a ball,
a square or a triangle. They never pick up the triangle. All the babies want to be the square. And science also shows that when we see or perceive fairness, our brain releases a substance
that gives us pleasure, proper joy. But when we perceive
unfairness, we feel pain … even greater pain than the same type of pain
as if I really hurt myself. That’s because unfairness triggers
the primitive, reptile part of our brain, the part that deals
with threats and survival, and when unfairness triggers a threat,
that’s all we can think about. Motivation, creativity, teamwork, they all go way back. And it makes sense
that we’re wired this way, because we’re social animals. We need to be part
of a community to survive. We’re born so helpless that someone needs to look after us
until we’re maybe 10 years old, so our brain evolves towards food. We need to be in that community. So whether I like it or not, not being invited to the friend’s wedding, my lizard brain is generating
the same response as if I’m about to be pushed out
from my community. So science explains quite nicely
why fairness is good and why unfairness
makes us really defensive, but science also shows
that in a fair environment, not only do we all want to be the square, but we tend to be the square, and this allows other people
to be fair in turn. This creates a beautiful fairness circle. But while we start off fair … one drop of unfairness
contaminates the whole pool, and unfortunately,
there’s plenty of drops in that pool. So our effort should be to filter out as much unfairness
as we can from everywhere, starting from our communities,
starting from our companies. I worry about this a lot because I lead
a team of 3,000 excellent people, and the difference between
3,000 happy, motivated team workers and 3,000 clock-watchers is everything. So the first thing I try to do
in my fairness crusade is to try to take myself
out of the equation. That means being aware of my own biases. For example, I really like
people who say yes to whatever I suggest. (Laughter) But that’s not very good for the company and not very good
for anyone who has different ideas. So we try to actively promote
a culture of diversity of opinions and diversity of character. The second thing we do
is a little more procedural. We look at all the rules, the processes,
the systems in the company, the ones we use to take decisions
and allocate resources, and we try to get rid
of anything that’s not very clear, not very rational, doesn’t make sense, and we also try to fix
anything that’s limiting the transfer of information
within the company. We then look at the culture
and the motivation for the same reasons. But my point is that however hard
you look at the rules, the processes, the systems —
and we have to do that — but however hard we look, we’re never going to do enough
to get to the real essence of fairness. That’s because the last mile of fairness
requires something else. It’s about what people’s emotions are, what their needs are, what’s going on in their private lives, what society needs. These are all questions and elements that are very hard to put
into a spreadsheet, into an algorithm. It’s very hard to make them
part of our rational decision. But if we miss these,
we’re missing key important points, and the outcome is likely to feel unfair. So we should cross-check our decisions
with our fairness center switched on. Is it right that this guy should get
the job he’s really hoping to get? Is it right that this guy should be fired? Is it right that we should be charging
so much for this product? These are tough questions. But if we take the time to ask ourselves whether the rational answer
is the right one … we all know deep inside
what the answer is. We’ve known since we were babies. And to know what the right answer is is pretty cool for decision-making. And if we turn on our hearts, that’s the key to getting
the real best out of people, because they can smell it if you care, and only when you really care
will they leave their fears behind and bring their true selves to work. So if fairness is a keystone of life, why isn’t every leader
making it their priority? Wouldn’t it be cool to work
in a company that was more fair? Wouldn’t it be great to have
colleagues and bosses that were selected and trained
for fairness and for character and not based on 60-year-old GMATs? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able
to knock on the door of a Chief Fairness Officer? We’ll get there,
but why is it not happening now? Well, partly, it’s because of inertia, partly, it’s because fairness
isn’t always easy. It requires judgment and risk. Drilling that eighth well was a risk. Promoting the guy who didn’t finish
high school was a risk. Building a cheese factory
in Ecuador was a risk. But fairness is a risk worth taking, so we should be asking ourselves, where can we take this risk? Where can we push ourselves
a little bit further, to go beyond what’s rational
and do what’s right? Thank you. (Applause)

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About the Author: Oren Garnes

49 Comments

  1. Make it illegal to force workers not to discuss salary and other benefits, so people can see that they're being treated fairly and equally…!

  2. To sum it up :
    Fairness is important. Unfairness triggers reptilian part of the brain(Insecurity).
    To-Do in your company
    1. Promote culture of opinions & diversity.
    2. Eliminate rules in the org that lack clarity.
    Did you achieve fairness? Not yet.
    Next are, Intangible elements that can't be put into a algorithm,Then?
    Turn on your hearts – Get involved & really care about your employees
    You have to DO what feels RIGHT. Right price. Hire/Fire the Right Guy for the Right Reasons.
    That's cool. Why aren't companies doing it? Doing those RIGHT things can be risky & unprofitable.
    But only when you take that risk & do what feels right & sometimes irrational, fairness can be achieved.

  3. When you treat people like people instead of like worthless and replaceable human resources they are happier and more productive, shocking.
    You want this to happen fast, start introducing more democratic workplaces where you actually matter and get some say in the running and watch the unfairness levels drop, because it certainly won't come freely from managers.

  4. Could this be implemented in an early stage of a company? Where the company struggles to build a customer base.

  5. In such a company what usually happens is that those who are greedy and don't want to play fair will climb up the ladder, perform badly, and destroy fairness. If everyone played fairly, problem is solved. To say that people is innately fair in real life situations is ridiculous. I don't think this analysis is deep enough. Fairness is needed, but implementing it is why we need assessment and business good practices.

  6. 50% women, 50% men does make a good mix for groups. When one gender does dominate the work environment, then the groups do have nothing to brag about the other gender or team. Women start picking at each-other, and men start to make pranks and silly games.

  7. Love it and breathe it but most companies do not care about science, research, etc. They only care about the bottom line via old proven ways.

  8. As a 12 year old EVEN I can see that the world needs to work on true fairness not by participation awards or everyone gets a trophy scenario we need to work on our small needs and basic human mannering i have been raised by a loving family, and i love it when they give me ACTUAL criticism and don't baby me when i lose i treasure their honest opinion and that gives me comfort to be with them. i love watching tedtalks and learning about physiological and social experiments and or research and it is eyeopening honestly. and i love hearing peoples stories and self exploration and revelations okay i'm done talking bye! <3

  9. Unfairness is an extremely subjective experience. Who is to decide what is fair?
    We do not have an innate sense of fairness. Humans are subjective, not objective.

  10. He uses the word "fairness" a lot,
    but what he talks about (regarding work)
    is not fairness but lack of responsibility.
    Fairness means getting rewarded accurately
    for your contributions. And that is pretty much the oposite
    of what he suggests.

  11. Why don’t you achieve fairness to the national level? Political parties just want votes, cared nothing about fairness. Those who wanted to achieve real fairness simply can’t do anything. On the other hand, why not ask McDonald or amazon to achieve fairness? McDonald’s ceo makes millions a day(maybe) and the hamburger flippers make less than a million in their WHOLE life.

  12. Life is not fair… look at the little hair that he has got. And how desperately he try to conceal his baldness…

  13. Oh my god, I never would have guessed that makes it easier to exploit the workers!

    To all the people who I triggered , I'm sorry. I didn't even watch the video.

  14. Life is complicated . What’s fair to one party may take away time and resources from another and there's a conflict of interest .

  15. This guy has an infantilizing conception of fairness. The left is made for children in a kindergarten, not for independent and competent adult in the real world. This infantilization is typical of social parasite who hijack the motherly instinct of people to prey on others generosity. That is the base of the left.

  16. The problem is that fairness is an elusive concept and quite subjective. What is fair for one person is not necessarily fair for another. A nice concept, but impossible to implement in business, especially a struggling one.

  17. Renewables should learn from what the oil companies do right in terms of policies and processes. The oil industry is really mature in terms of attracting and retaining really great talent (amongst other things).

  18. I'm Swedish and fairness and equality in every way possible are important values to us. Swedish companies communicate it and are successful so point proven – IKEA, H&M, Volvo, Ericsson, Saab, the Swedish music industry etc.. And we are a small country up North in Europe with merely 10 milion inhabitants.

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