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Posted: April 02, 2009

Fair dealing: How to use your brain to make more money

What sex, chocolate and fairness all have in common

Scott Halford

This Darwinian-like market will test even the most evolved business people, and any tools we can find to improve our chances for success are worth knowing about. One of the greatest untapped toolboxes is the understanding and use of neuroscience. Right now, we’re surrounded by a lot of unfairness: Unfair layoffs, unfair bonuses, unfair bailouts and the list goes on.

It seems like the obsession around what is fair and what is not is taking over nearly every discussion about what’s happening in the world today. All for good reason. Our brains are wired for fairness. When you grasp this cool little neuro-shortcut and use it properly, you’ll be able to let go of some of that unfair thinking that bogs down even the heartiest of souls, and even better, you’ll become an improved negotiator.

Fairness is like sex and chocolate

Neuroscientist, Dr. Matthew Lieberman of UCLA devotes a lot of his experimenting to fairness. He’s discovered a place in the brain that responds to it in the same way the brain responds to sex and chocolate (very positively). In other words, the brain sees fairness as a reward. Every second of the day the brain is looking for two things: to minimize danger and maximize reward. Think about that in terms of the client conversations you have, particularly when you’re negotiating or initiating a new business relationship. There’s a good chance many of the volleys back and forth are about how fair the deal or relationship will be.

Lieberman and his associates found that when things are basically equal between two people, the relationship feels positive. When there is an imbalance, no matter how trivial one person believes it to be, negativity seeps in and fireworks in the form of withholding information, passive-aggressive behavior and complete rejection of the offer or relationship start to ignite. That tells you something about the opposite of fairness. Vengeance. The brain’s craving for fairness is so strong that people will often go out of their way to “even up the score” when they feel jilted.

Using your sense of what is fair as a barometer for negotiation is dangerous. When you use fairness in a negotiation, it’s important to understand that what feels uneven to the other person might not feel uneven to you. Many a deal is lost because one or both people in the discussion did not probe to learn what the other felt was fair. It’s as simple as asking what is important and then making sure you deliver it or at least address it.  When this is not done, the deal will derail and both people may be left confused and thinking, “What the heck just happened?”

Neuroscience tells us that fairness is a very real entity in our brain. Behavioral science, and specifically emotional intelligence, tells us how to recognize cues for it.

Empathy is a powerful business tool

Since fairness is different from person to person, being empathetic (an emotional intelligence attribute) is one of the most powerful and disarming things you can be because it often leads to good fairness discussions. When you are very concerned with what is important to someone, you see the cues and hear emphasis on these parts of the  deal. These  clues will guide you to fairness and the results you desire. 

One cautionary piece about fairness - it isn’t fail-safe. Following a recent talk about to brain-based success behaviors, a participant e-mailed me to say, "I got kind of frustrated because it's nice to say that others will relax and feel good with you when they feel like they're being treated fairly. I am closing with a buyer who treated the seller so badly that they don't want to see them at the closing. If I had told the buyer to be fair, they would have told me I wasn't going to represent them."

I replied: “Sounds like your buyer is a jerk. All the fairness in the world won’t change that. Fairness only works for those who have some decency and conscience. When you find someone who has a misshaped concept of what is fair, you will always have a struggle in negotiations. Just something to be aware of. Not much you can do about it, except understand that you’ll need to be a pro at negotiation (you can’t change others' bad behavior). Sorry you got one of the jerks.”

People won’t necessarily relax and feel good with you when they are treated fairly. But when someone feels fairness, they are more willing to play evenly in a negotiation. Fairness is comprised of a set of attractor behaviors that make you more likeable when fairness is felt. Likeability leads to deals closing and relationships deepening. Fair enough.

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Scott Halford is the president of Complete Intelligence™, LLC. His new book, "Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success” is available now. Contact Scott at

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Readers Respond

Good info which is analagous to the Golden Rule: Treat others like you'd like to be treated. Assuming that you're not a jerk to begin with and don't mind being treated like one. All's fair in love and war. Another maxim: People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Although lately, there have been a number of high-profile con jobs (Madoff, Merriman) that employ these techniques strictly for their own gain. Win/Win is the name of the game and until you put yourself in another's shoes, will you truly understand others. By MaryClare on 2009 04 14
Armed with the idea that people gravitate towards the need for fairness gives hope for the idealists of the world....I happen to be one of those, but, caution and awareness of those who care only for power and control needs to be in the back pocket of the idealists. A quick look around at the lying, cheating, stealing that has come to light recently in this country and in many corporations should tell you that the good hearted idealists need to keep their eyes open and their pocketbooks closed! By Mary Villalba on 2009 04 06

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