It’s not fair

22 May 2024
Carrie Birmingham

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As we saw in Harry Potter, Voldermot is so feared in the wizarding world that it is considered dangerous even to speak his name. Much of my work surfaces these unspoken elements, the things that can’t be said.  So let’s talk about fairness…

How does it work?

I have written before about seeing beyond the individual.  Once we do this, we can sense the ‘hidden architecture’ within systems.  These are the forces that underpin how people, teams and organisations work together. These are the forces and influences that we are often unaware of, that govern how we live and work.  Just like a magnet, you can see the effect it has on iron filings but you can’t see the magnetic field at  work. 

One of these forces is ‘exchange’, which is the dynamic balance of giving and receiving. All systems seek to correct an imbalance of exchange, a lack of fairness.  Within us, we have an internal balancing sense (often unconscious) calibrating the level of giving and receiving.   Because inherently when we receive something, we want to give something back; when we give, we expect to receive something in return.  If this dynamic feels “off” we find ourselves feeling resentful and our inner whinny voice (or maybe it’s just mine!) whispers “it’s not fair.”

Start with you 

Your approach to fairness, giving and receiving is shaped by how you grew up. This historical context includes a multitude of factors (birth order, upbringing, environment) and life experiences (education, access to resources and support) so we are each unique about how we define it. As a result, there are certain actions we find easy to do and certain actions we find really difficult. 

In many start-ups this rears its head because there is a baseline expectation of “working hard” fuelled by the macho claims by entrepreneurs of the need for 100-hour weeks.  Our differing definition shapes how we respond to this. When we miss something (kids bath time, a run, meditation class, drinks with friends) in order to work, exchange is being calibrated.  Whilst we are making the choice ourselves, we look across at our colleagues, co-founders and wonder if they are doing the same? When your weekend emails to your co-founder are not answered until Monday morning, who is working harder? This dynamic is often the root cause of conflict.  

I once worked in a team where I grew gradually resentful; in our team meetings, I always left with the actions. I know that it was my own discomfort with the silence that follows “who is picking that up?” (toes curling as I even think about it!) that prompted me to put my hand up. My “be strong” driver  helped me convince myself that I could squeeze a few more tasks into my day, and as a result I found (who am I kidding, still find!) saying “no’ really difficult. 

But in truth, to avoid looking at myself or needing to change, I got busy being annoyed at a colleague. I started to form unpleasant judgements (i.e. lazy, disrespectful) about him because he kept quiet.  I didn’t have the awareness or capability to say, “can we talk about how unbalanced things feel to me?”  Focusing on the anger, frustration and annoyance with a colleague is the “go to” pattern for many of us when things feel unbalanced. But underneath this is the root cause, and there is where the conversation needs to happen.  

For some clients we find that their long-term pattern of over-giving has left them exhausted and resentful.  Like detonators, as soon as it is pressed, they are acting automatically from their historical pattern (i.e. working on a Sunday, always offering to do the extra task). 

How do we talk about fairness?

When talking to a Co-founder recently, about how unfair things felt to him, I challenged why he hadn’t said anything and he said, “I don’t want to be that d**k, I have worked for that guy before and I don’t want to become him”.  I totally get this, we have lots of judgements (especially in the UK) about what is polite to talk about and fairness is rarely on the list.  But not talking about it escalates the problem.  

We need to find a way to step into this conversation. We can do this by exploring the sources of exchange for each of us, by tuning into needs and expectations.  For one co-founder partnership this meant agreeing one would start his day early (as he was a lark) and his colleague worked late (as he was an owl) and that was fair. 

Working with a team recently, the MD had a strong value of ‘fairness’ and so she wanted to understand how her small team felt about exchange.  We started with some deep breaths and tuning into how we were arriving to the conversation.  You could feel a frisson in the air that we were daring to talk about this.

We explored different aspects of how they work, using a scale (see below) to start exploring how their exchange was feeling.  This enables individuals to share where they were and invited them to talk about the choices they are making and what that means to them.   



They are a skilled team, and so great questions were asked, and people spoke truthfully. However, there was a sense of wanting to check, is this really safe?.  For those higher up the scale, they described why boundaries were important to them, and how they were influencing their choices, and how guilty they felt.  They were able to deepen their understanding of each other and also understand the intentions behind people’s choices. They were able to let go of any annoyance, and talk about the deeper reality.  

So what?

As you read this blog, ask yourself:

  • Reflecting on your partnerships, where do things feel “off”, where does it feel unbalanced?
  • Ask yourself, How am I contributing to that exchange? What patterns are fuelling this?
  • Where could you experiment and start talking about exchange to build your capacity?