Strategic Comms 50: Importance of Fair Process in Entitlement

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(This is the 50th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

In addition to the adage “people like to be asked” that we discussed earlier (see Strategic Communications Part 10: People Like to Be Asked, it is extremely important that people see the process of entitling your project as fair.  In fact, there is a concept called procedural justice in which people place more of an emphasis on the process than on the outcome of any given situation.

Procedural justice is caused by people’s inherent sense of fairness as exhibited in the ultimatum game, upon which we had previously elucidated (see Strategic Communications Part 48: Are Emotional Decisions a Bad Thing?  As you might recall, this game illustrated that moral decisions, especially those involving fairness, are not rational decisions but emotional decisions.

In addition, Ori and Rom Brafman presented a few examples in their book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior specifically related to procedural justice and the importance of giving people a voice.  For instance, they cite a study in which men convicted of various crimes were asked whether they received a fair trial.  What they found was that people put nearly as much weight on the process as they did on the outcome regardless of the crime committed and punishment received.  This was primarily based on how much time their attorneys spent with them throughout the trial.

In another study, venture capitalists were asked how satisfied they were with their investments both in terms of process and outcome.  These results also revealed that VCs gave process disproportionate weight.  In particular, they had a more favorable view of the venture if the CEO had offered timely feedback and kept them up to date on performance issues.  However, as the authors point out, shouldn’t the VCs just be concerned about the bottom line?  That is, what if some CEOs were less communicative because they were more committed to ensuring the success of their venture?  Essentially, this is once again evidence of irrational behavior.

What this means for developers is that they can certainly placate people by allowing them to have their voices heard through the entitlement process.  More importantly, they are putting their projects at risk if people don’t perceive that they are being treated fairly.  After all, even the best projects with potentially great outcomes can be derailed by a few critical missteps.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email

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