Fairness and teams
What we can learn from monkeys

In many of my training sessions, I show the following excerpt of Frans de Waal’s TED talk on Moral Behavior in Animals. I am a biologist by training and I do not want to hide it...

I have always had a soft spot for Frans de Waal ever since he showed us his research on chimpanzees in Burger Zoo and performed a mock alpha male chimpanzee attack in the Zoo’s restaurant, to the astonishment of the diners. He is the leading authority on politics in chimpanzees, by the way.

So let us watch it …


It never fails to get laughs, so it is a lighter moment in the training.

Participants also ask me what the relation is with the topic of the training, Leading SAFe.

The short explanation is that you may encounter the same situation when coaching human teams. At one customer, people with a Masters' degree had a significantly different payscale from people with a Bachelors', and it led to some passive resistance with Bachelors figuratively crossing their arms and waiting for a solution offered by the Masters. Not the best attitde when trying to realize an agile transformation.

But there is also the long story.

What this excerpt of the longer TED-presentation demonstrates is that social mammals have an innate sense of fairness. What is more, the capuchin monkey protests against a violation of fairness. We immediately grasp the message, the behavior is all too similar to our own. Which makes it funny.

There is an interesting short fragment where the monkey actually tests the rock, proving that she is doing the task appropriately. The protest is not blind, she makes sure she is right.

Fairness is related to altruism (see my previous blog post on altruism). In short, social animals are prepared to share with the group, foregoing immediate gain for some long-term benefits. I share with you now (when I have more than you) in order for you to share with me later when I may need your help. Except: you do not want to be short-changed, giving now and not receiving later. You should be able to detect cheaters and be alert for any sign that you are being treated unfairly and are dealing with a cheater.

So, social animals are altruistic and have developed the skills to detect unfair treatment.

Any of you with two children or having grown up with siblings know how accurate the kids are tallying all acts of parental care and privileges granted to them and their siblings. Very accurately... Parents have to be impartial in bestowing benefits on their children.

Lencioni points out that the foundation layer for human teams is trust. We can establish such trust by showing vulnerability. I suspect  this works because through vulnerability we show we can be trusted, we are not cheaters. And cheating is the one thing that prevents cooperation. 

If managers want team members to collaborate, they will also need to be fair and even-handed. Reward systems should also be fair and even-handed. The fairness that matters is in the eye of the beholder, so it will be the team members who will judge if a promotion, a bonus or a pay raise are fair. Really agile companies experiment with reward systems based on appreciation by the teams. 

So this is what we can learn from the monkeys. Humans are social animals. We are hard-wired to recognize fairness, just like the monkeys. It is in our DNA. Working in a fair and just environment will make us happier and more prepared to collaborate. Simple as that.

On a side note. Dogs have a clear sense of fairness as well. Researchers thought that this was acquired through living with humans. Wolves have been shown to have an even more acute sense of fairness, though. So no, the dogs have not learned it from us. I still love the hypothesis that wolves and humans gradually came together and learned to collaborate, both using their innate sense of fairness to recognize the objective advantages of a shared hunt between men and wolves, and a fair sharing of the captured prey (see my previous post on this). But then, I may be a romantic.

Sign in to leave a comment


Some Lean Biology
How animals select food and how business needs to prioritize features