Distinguishing “Workable” from “Fair”

As a parent of three young ladies, I often find myself embroiled in household battles over fairness. On almost a daily basis, I hear things like, “That’s not fair!” when it comes to everything from who gets time on the computer or who gets the last cookie in the jar.

That means that my wife and I are constantly being forced into situations to help mediate and solve these disputes. And what my wife and I have figured out is that not everything that is fair is workable and not everything that is workable is fair.

For instance, if there are only two cookies left in the jar, there isn’t any real “fair” way to split them up three ways since we have less than three cookies to dole out. The workable solution in this case, however, is that dad and mom will throw out the two remaining cookies and the children will get none. (Cue the sound of three whining girls).

Of course, we all have our own subjective definitions for what might be “fair” in a particular situation. When it comes to kids and cookies, it comes down to who might have more than someone else. The point is that we often find ourselves in situations in life where we need to choose between what might be fair versus what is workable.

Obviously it’s ideal when those two dynamics are in perfect alignment – when something is both fair and workable, like, say, having three cookies to share between three daughters. But I’ve found that sometimes our need to achieve fairness can become the enemy of workability.

One experience from my career in particular stands out for me. It was back in the early 1990s when I had the opportunity to buy the equipment from a computer repair business that was closing up. The seller of that business was moving to Florida and he asked a friend of his, a broker, to work with me to strike a fair deal.

Well, the broker and I worked through a valuation process and, in the end, I handed over a check for $3,500 for the equipment. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. The seller called me up screaming, telling me that I had screwed him with a lowball amount and that he was going to sue me and his friend.

I have to admit, I was upset. It wasn’t fair – I did everything he asked me to! I was offended that he was accusing me of cheating him and I started relishing the chance to prove that he was wrong in a court of law.

Fortunately, around that same time, I met up with a longtime family friend and my personal mentor, Al Ferrini, who offered me some advice. Al was a great listener who, after hearing every detail of a situation, could distill it down into a single question. In this case, after hearing me rant and rave about how unfair this guy was, Al simply asked: “Do you make money taking care of people’s tech needs or by suing people in court?”

With that question, Al helped put everything into perspective: in my pursuit of “fairness” I was creating an unworkable situation. I wasn’t going to win anything by challenging this guy in a courtroom.

What I did instead was call up the seller and ask him about which items he thought were underpriced. After some thought, he told me the total difference was $500. Wow. All of that emotion and hurt feelings came down to just $500, let alone all the time and expense I would have incurred if I had gone to court. I wrote him a check on the spot without even bothering to make him a counteroffer. I was just relieved that we could put it all behind us with a workable result.

Was it fair that I had to pay the additional money? No, since I had done everything he had requested and his broker determined the value of the equipment. But paying the extra $500 created workability – which was far more valuable than fairness to me in this case.

Now, if the seller had come back to me with a request for another $3,000, we still would have had a big problem. Fortunately, though, it didn’t come to that and we were able to reach a workable solution. Maybe the seller, too, thought the extra $500 wasn’t completely fair. But it was close enough to what we might call the sweet spot, where workability and fairness intersect, to close the deal.

It’s important to recognize that when people hold onto fairness over achieving workability, you’re usually left with untenable situations. Just look around the world at say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They can’t come up with a solution because they are each so focused on what’s “fair” versus what’s “workable.” No one wins in that scenario; it results in a stalemate that can persist indefinitely.

Again, not everything that is fair is workable and not everything that is workable is fair. But understanding how those dynamics interact can help us approach our decisions and actions in a more mindful way.


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