Justice and Compassion – Two Peas in the Trust Pod

Part 5 of our Building Trust Series

When I feel strongly about something – something of which I want to convince others – I often find myself constructing a rational case.  I lay a sturdy foundation of facts, data, and evidence.  I erect a beautiful case built upon objectivity, logic, and rationality.  I can argue with the best of them and I wait with anticipation to see my stunning arguments make converts of the most stalwart opponents.

Guess what?  Despite the robustness of the foundation and the quality of the arguments, I make far fewer converts than I would like.

I’m a psychologist, and therefore often a little slow on the uptake – so it took me awhile to learn an exceptionally valuable lesson – and it was a lesson learned from the research of a fellow psychologist, Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt studies moral psychology and has determined that people on the political left and the political right value and prioritize different moral “channels” – meaning they have different moral principles that guide their thinking and decision-making.  People on the political right typically are influenced by five moral channels: care/concern for others, justice for individuals, respect for authority, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity/purity.  People on the political left are typically only influenced by the first two moral channels: care/concern for others and justice for individuals.

Political divisions in our country and around the globe are deep and becoming more caustic each and every day – and I have NO interest in wading into that discussion.  Let’s focus on the similarities, not the differences.

Haidt’s research indicates that virtually all people find moral arguments persuasive that focus on caring for people (and not doing harm to them) and treating people fairly (however that might be defined).

The medial prefontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for both rational judgment and moral judgment – tends to give priority to moral information over rational information.  In other words, we find moral arguments more persuasive than rational ones – and moral arguments focused on care and fairness are the ones that are most likely to reach the widest array of people.  Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle and his notion that we should start with “why” is largely based upon this idea that statements of values garner greater attention and are more persuasive than statements of fact. 

In fact, according to Haidt’s work, moral judgment precedes moral reasoning.  That is to say, we encounter moral information, make a quick, intuitive judgment about something being right or wrong, and then go in search of reasons for why that thing is right or wrong.

As leaders, we can most effectively build trust and exercise influence by maintaining a laser-like focus on caring for our people and treating them fairly at all times.  By doing so, we demonstrate our general benevolence and trigger automatic judgments of us as “GOOD/RIGHT” as opposed to “BAD/WRONG.”

In the previous installment of this series, I described some simple ways to demonstrate care/concern for people – but what about treating people fairly/justly?

It’s actually fairly simple.  But simple doesn’t mean easy…


Up Next: Unpacking Fairness/Justice in the Workplace


Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who engage people, dignify work, and inspire excellence. Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 100 companies. In addition to running Impavid, Daniel teaches at Vanderbilt University and Belmont University and serves as a pro-bono advisor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.


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