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Equity Theory: Balancing Fairness for Organisational Harmony


Introduction and History

First developed by behavioural psychologist John Stacey Adams in 1963, Equity Theory is a classic model that has significantly shaped both workplace motivation theory and our understanding of job satisfaction. It investigates the balance between an employee’s inputs (e.g., effort, skill level, dedication) and outcomes (e.g., salary, benefits, recognition), comparing it to the input/outcome ratio of others. In other words, what do we give, and what do we get.


Equity Theory posits that employees perceive fairness in the workplace (i.e., equity) when they believe that the ratio of their efforts to rewards is balanced with the efforts and rewards of others. In situations where this balance—or equity—is disrupted, employees may experience distress, which could lead to corrective behaviours to restore the balance.

Practical Examples and Case Studies

A recent unprecedented strike by nurses in the UK can be argued to reflect a breakdown in the equity theory between them and their employers.  A breaking point was reached whereby what they give (and gave during the recent pandemic), became so far out of kilter with their expectations that they felt they had no option but to remove their labour, reflecting the principles of Equity Theory in action.

Academic Insights

Adams’ Equity Theory emphasises that it is the perception of fairness rather than the actual fairness that matters in a workplace context. Research has demonstrated that perceived inequity can lead to job dissatisfaction, reduced productivity, diminished loyalty, and increased turnover.

Critical Analysis

Equity Theory provides valuable insights into employees’ motivation and job satisfaction. However, it assumes that all employees respond to perceived inequities in the same way and fails to consider cultural or individual differences in reactions to perceived fairness.

Future Outlook

With current trends towards increased transparency (especially regarding pay and benefits) and the ongoing conversation around equal pay, Equity Theory is increasingly relevant. Leaders must strive for perceived fairness in their teams, as it directly impacts employee motivation, job satisfaction, and overall team performance.


Equity Theory plays a pivotal role in understanding employees’ perceptions of fairness and how these perceptions can impact their behaviour. While it may not account for all variability in employee reactions, it offers critical insights that leaders can leverage to foster a more engaged and productive team.

Further Reading and Resources

Book: “Equity Theory and Research” by Elaine Hatfield, and John T. L. Cacioppo

Article: “Equity Theory and its Application in the Workplace” (UK Essays)

Video: YouTube: “Adams’ Equity Theory” by MindToolsVideos

Podcast: WorkLife with Adam Grant: “Pay, Perks, and Peeves”

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Pete Williams

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