When equal isn’t fair

By John Trewolla, MBA

Life is full of difficult choices. Decisions about how to divide or distribute something – especially among children – often qualify as “difficult decisions.”

Every parent has heard their child protest, “That’s not fair!” … especially when siblings want the same thing. When emotions run high, these disputes can lead to long-lasting resentments and disrupted relationships.

The Zero Sum Fallacy is behind many such “who gets how much of what” conflicts. The Zero Sum Fallacy is based upon the assumption that what is being divided is a fixed or unchanging resource. Money and wealth are common examples. Any increase in one person’s share reduces what the others get.

The simple solution is to make each share equal by some objective measure… dollars, shares or something else than can be counted. Sometimes that works well.

But what if equal just doesn’t feel fair?

It happens often. Intangible factors like expectations, personalities, preferences and other things complicate the decisions. Trying to keep all these factors balanced can paralyze even “simple” business decisions between family members, business partners, leaders and department heads. Common examples include:

• A family business where not all the children have worked in the business.
• Where one of the children has already received more resources, perhaps due to disability, divorce, special needs, family size, etc.
• A business where siblings running the business each want their child to become the successor.
• A family where one child is much more responsible/capable/needy than the other(s).

Too often, the fair vs. equal dilemma paralyzes the decision maker. Succession plans and retirement decisions are postponed. The company and its value suffer the risks of death, disease and unplanned gaps in leadership. Some companies do not survive.

What to do? Rethink and Reframe.

Rethinking identifies the assumptions and expectations that are associated with the conflict. This almost always reveals issues that need discussion and clarification.

Reframing defines fair in new ways. For example, does the conflict involve the zero-sum fallacy described above? Are there unrelated issues that are a part of the conflict? (If so, they are not “unrelated!”) Does everyone really want exactly the same thing from the agreement? The answers almost always reveal new options.

Simple, yes? But not easy!

Four things get in the way:

  1. We all have pre-conceived ideas about what other people want. These ideas may have developed over years of interactions. The problem is that they can become inaccurate and misleading over time.
  2. Often, everyone shares the same assumptions. Rarely are shared assumptions challenged and discussed. These assumptions may not be in conflict, but they can certainly deadlock a decision.
  3. Insight is required to recognize and deal with such assumptions. They may be “sore points” that trigger anger, defensiveness and denial. Most people find it easier simply to avoid talking about them.
  4. Too often, the decision is being made without engaging those involved with the outcome. Such conversations can become very emotional but they are essential.

Act today. Delay is dangerous.

Postponed choices and decisions expose companies, leaders and their families to serious risks. Get help from a qualified conflict management coach. Especially in family-owned businesses, an outsider can bring the fresh perspective that is so essential to reframing and resolving long-standing conflicts.