PriceWaterhouseCoopers just published the results of a survey in which they asked 1,123 business leaders about their views on fair pay and the inequality of excessive pay dispersion.

Almost all (91 percent) agreed that "Pay should reflect contribution, effort, experience and the demands of the job" and most (82 percent) felt that "Market competition is fair as long as everyone's opportunities are truly equal."  

For most people in the business sector, opportunities must be equal, but pay need not be, as long as it is well-deserved. Fairness and equality are dissociable.

What makes a large pay gap feel fair?

When you judge something to be fair, you're "perceiving" it to be fair and your perception is swayed by your mindset, attitude and personal beliefs. Two people in the same company can look at a large pay gap in two different ways, one perceiving it as fair, the other as unfair.

How comfortable you feel with seeing your boss or senior colleagues earn much more than you, depends in part on your own attitude toward success.

Do you play to win or do you play to not lose?

When you're playing to win, you're looking at the positives and are driven by ambition. Mistakes don't bother you.

When you're playing to not lose, you're guided by responsibilities and obligations. It's more important to avoid mistakes than it is to win.

Many of us are naturally inclined toward one state more than the other, but we also oscillate between the two depending on the circumstances.

If you play to win, you won't mind so much if someone earns much more than you.

A study on 827 South Korean and 186 Taiwanese employees from 47 different companies found a positive correlation between pay dispersion and the perception of fairness in those playing to win.

There was no correlation  in employees who played to not lose. 

If you're playing to win, your eye is on how much you could potentially win. You view the upper limit of pay dispersion as something that is within your reach as long as you put in the required effort, so it "feels" fair.

Feedback, communication and control shape your attitude.

Whether you play to win or to not lose can be influenced by feedback, communication styles and the perception of being in control. 

In one study on undergraduates solving anagrams, feedback such as "Right, you got that one" instead of " No, you missed that one" encouraged a win-focus with better performance.

Communication also plays a role. In a related study, volunteers who were told they would receive a reward if they solved 22 out of 25 anagrams rather than being told they would not receive the reward if they got four or more of the anagrams wrong, adopted a win-focus.

Feeling in control inspires a win-focus. Employees who think they have autonomy and independence are more comfortable with large pay gaps.

If employees think they can reach for the sky, they feel comfortable with the sky as their limit. If their wings are clipped, and they don't feel they have autonomy or control, the sky seems unfairly high. 

Taking action.

When you're deciding how to scale your employees' pay, it might help to take their "fit" into account. Are most of them, through the specifics of their job and of company dynamics, playing to win, or playing to not lose?

If most are focusing on "making wins", they may be happier with large pay dispersion than if they're focusing on avoiding loss. 

The authors of the South Korean/Taiwanese study suggest giving employees extra opportunities for making wins and more options for control and autonomy, to make excessive pay dispersion feel more acceptable and fair.