It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it

Why would some people protest against an initiative to do them good? Why some altruistic endeavours get sabotaged by the very beneficiaries of the efforts?


Why would some people protest against an initiative to do them good? Why some altruistic endeavours get sabotaged by the very beneficiaries of said efforts?

Last month, a local Vancouver newspaper reported on a group of residents who oppose an ex-neighbour’s initiative to embellish a nearby city lot. Although this proposal includes investing $7,650 of the city’s money to improve this piece of land, many residents protested against it through anonymous emails, letters to the city and even confrontations on the street! “The neighbours are up in arms”—one resident commented [1].  Meanwhile, some us wonder why these people are protesting against a plan that seems well-intended and beneficial. What is it about the whole situation that makes it deserving of such tremendous furor?

I will focus only on one part of the answer: people care about how a decision was made as much as they care about the decision itself [2, 3, 4]. Research has shown that people often accept rulings they totally disagree with, if they think the process that led to them is fair. Conversely, they reject decisions they would otherwise agree with, if they have doubts about the fairness of the process.

This seems to be the case in the dispute over the beautification of the public lot. The complaining residents are dissatisfied mostly with the process. They don’t understand “how a woman who no longer lives on their street can get money from the city to carry out work they haven’t been consulted about.” One of the residents was even quoted as saying: “the democratic process has been missed here.”[1]

This pattern is very common to many conflict situations, because we usually don’t expect people to complain about decisions made for their benefit. So, we assume that they will receive our initiatives with gratitude; that they will focus on the goodness of the outcome and won’t question the process. Much to our disappointment, our altruistic intentions end up being perceived as disruptive just because we didn’t give enough importance to those “mere formalities”.

Does this mean that whenever we decide to benefit others we should consult with all parties involved? Not really. There are several ways to improve the fairness of the process in this kind of decisions (I mean public or collective decisions); consulting is just one way. You can also apply a full disclosure policy or make sure you don’t harm people’s dignity or sense of self worth [3].

In summary, conflict situations can also arise from good, well-intended deeds. Our altruistic initiatives can infuriate others, if we focus only on the goodness of our ends and forget about the fairness of our means.

Bonus track

In the current financial hardship, where lay offs are inevitable, companies can benefit greatly from knowledge on the fairness of the process. In the same way that people tend to reject “good decisions” on the basis of an unfair decision process, employees can better accept being laid off, if they are treated with dignity and the outplacement process is fair. [3, 4]

(1) Rossi, C. (2009) Neighbourhood divided over beautification plan. In The Vancouer Courier, Vol. 100, No. 40, may 20. pp. 1, 4.

(2) Lind, E.A. & Tyler, T.R. (1988). The social psychology of procedural justice, second Ed. Plennum Press.

(3) Tyler, T.R. & Lind, E.A. & (1992). A relational model of authority in groups. In Zanna, M. P. (Ed.). Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, pp. 115-188. Academic Press

(4) Tyler, T.R.  (2001). Procedural strategies for gaining deference: Increasing social harmony or creating false consciousness? In Darley, J.M., Messick, D. M. Tyler, T.R.  (Ed.) Social Influences on ethical behavior in organizations, pp. 69-88. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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