An Experimental Exercise In Managing Professional Bias

My dear friend Betsy Aoki shared a great article this afternoon that everyone in tech should read (and probably every other industry too, but I can’t speak as definitively there). The assumptive and presumptive behavior of the suitably-embarrassed and chastised folks in the article got me to thinking about how we fail as professionals on a constant basis in judging people too fast. There are logical arguments to be made as to why we insist on jumping to conclusions fast (too many meetings in a day, not enough bandwidth right now, etc.) but that doesn’t justify the behavior pattern – especially if it’s (all too often) wrong, discriminative, offensive, and worse.

For the avoidance of doubt, I have no problem with people judging each other. It’s part of human nature, and at a professional level we do have to prioritize, bucketize, and order other human beings, as cold as that may sound.

But you can judge people in two radically-different ways that I refer to as “top-down” and “assumptions-up”.

Most folks (and we all – each and every one of us – have been guilty of it at some time) work in the “assumptions-up” world – just like the unfortunate, embarrassed folks in the above article. Whether you want them or not, you DO have preconceived professional notions that you have learned about people based on irrelevant data like age, gender, race, religion, and even on things as random as height, weight, speech patterns, and hair color! If you think you’re exempt from these behaviors for some magical reason, YOU ARE WRONG. Do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Mazharin Banaji’s implicit-association research, book – or even take an IAT test yourself (warning: I was disturbed by my results).

Even though we have  learned these unfortunate biases, and they may be exceptionally difficult to unlearn, we can try to get around them in judging each other in professional* situations by working “top-down”.

Spend a week trying to work top-down. I guarantee it’ll have an impact on you. Whoever walks into your office, or into a conference room, or sits down in front of you at that cafe for a meeting, or walks up to you at some networking event – treat them identically: ASSUME THEY ARE A ROCK STAR! Yes this is counter-intuitive to how most folks manage their time and interactions – so what. Start at the top, assuming they are amazing, and figure out as you go along where they have deficits. Yes, you will be building someone ‘down’ in your mind instead of ‘up’, but you’ll find that you will be “building them down” with a ton more rationality than your preconceived, irrelevant assumptions may permit you to “build them up.”

Regardless of whether you come to the conclusion that someone is great, mediocre, or useless in the end; I guarantee your conclusion will not be majority-based on the color of their skin, the presence (or not) of a Y chromosome, whether they’ve got a skullcap on their head, or anything else generally irrelevant. As an added bonus, you’ll have a better interaction and fewer people will walk away thinking you’re an asshole 😉 .

Give it a try!

* I’m afraid I have no experimental prescription as to solving these biases outside of professional workspaces, where they are, sadly, probably 100x more destructive.

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