When Do People Think They’ve Been Treated Well?


Monday, 7.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Fairness is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised. – Brit Hume

Operations Research is about making things work better. That’s a relatively simple thing when it comes to machines and processes – go to where the work is being done and make it better. But saying it’s simple is not the same as saying it’s easy. And the difference comes down to people.

What makes one person happy and contented and another dissatisfied and unhappy? What drives people – how are they motivated to do the best they can do?

There’s a concept called “Procedural Justice” which may help explain this – but we need to unpack it a little and Tyler and Blader’s 2000 book Cooperation in groups gives us an introduction to they key concepts.

An economic approach to motivation assumes that what people need are incentives – give them the right incentives and they’ll move mountains. It’s all about salary and stock options and bonuses. Of course you could go with deterrents and threats instead – punish people for failure. Both these are instrumental approaches that drive selfish behaviour – either to get rewards or avoid being punished.

But what makes people cooperate and work together? Why would you work with someone else to make things better for both of you if you’re incentivised to do the best you can on your own? Not everything has to do with self-interest but an important component of group work is the concept of fairness – a justice-based model of cooperative endeavour.

Procedural justice is a particular kind of fairness that’s involved in cooperative work. If you had control over decisions then you could have things your own way. But if you’re not in control then you want to be satisfied that the procedures that are being followed treat you the same way as others.

There are three important components to this:

  • Are you treated politely and with dignity?
  • Are the people in charge trustworthy?
  • Are the procedures neutral?

At one extreme you can see how this works with your experiences with the police. You want to trust the police, you want them to treat you politely and with dignity, and you want them to use the same procedures with all people.

You can apply the same concepts in other situations – from the workplace to social activities. Issues of equality, diversity and inclusion can be viewed through a lens of procedural justice. For each opportunity that you go for are you treated politely and with dignity by trustworthy individuals who apply neutral procedures?

If you are then I think you’ll agree that you’ve been treated well.


Karthik Suresh


Tyler, T., & Blader, S. (2000). Cooperation in Groups: Procedural Justice, Social Identity, and Behavioral Engagement (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203782842

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