I Expect Great Things From You

2016-07-18 15:39

I know I am biased. So are you. Trust me; life would be impossible if we weren’t. We talk about bias as if it’s a bad thing, but like most things human, it’s a little more complicated than that. Yes, the idea of people judging before they even get to know us is enough to make anyone a little defensive. But trust me Tonto; you’ve been doing it to others since you got out of bed this morning.

“Whoa, there cowboy! Who do you think you are accusing me of being biased?”

(Forgive me for referencing myself in the third person there. This wouldn’t be South Africa if we didn’t hear some patronising mampara make a statement, ask themselves why they made it, and then answer themselves, now would it?)

As Gary was saying. Our brains are hardwired to categorise. We quickly put people in a box. A black box. A white box. A fat box. A lady box! (Note to self: Be careful with South Africanisms, I digress). To each box we assign a general set of characteristics – we need to do this. If we judged every situation purely on merit, we’d spend the whole day evaluating each and every single interaction. That would be cognitively exhausting. Our evolutionary history shaped this response. See snake, don’t like snake, get out of there. Yes, snake might wear suit these days, but our ability to jump to conclusions is essentially our default position. And why not, it got us this far.

As our prefrontal cortex grew, we developed the ability to ‘decide’ whether snake was so bad after all. It was something we had to learn, before we just ran from snake. Our ability to overcome instinctive impulse seems pre-dated by our ability to jump to conclusions.

You’ve all seen the show, Dragon’s Den? Well what if I told you about Mildred? And how Mildred approached the bank….

Based on this information, what can we assume about Mildred? Budding entrepreneur?

Actually Mildred approached the bank…. on the corner of 45th Street, on her way to the needle exchange for heroin addicts. An unfortunate habit that cost her, her kids, the support of her family and a great job as a production assistant on the BBC’s smash hit, Dragon’s Den. Poor Mildred.

The point is – most people jump to conclusions about 'Mildred', without knowing the first thing about her. The default is impossible to ignore.

Or consider psychologist Solomon Asch’s two characters: Ben & Andrew. Which do you prefer?

Ben: Genius – Creative – Focused – Volatile – Stubborn - Arrogant

Andrew: Arrogant – Stubborn – Volatile – Focused – Creative - Genius

Most people are willing to forgive Ben his foibles, he’s a genius, they tend to be difficult. Andrew on the other hand, well he’s smart, but he sounds like a bit of an asshole. The fact that the same words describe both isn’t as important as the order in which the words appear. First impressions make a big difference.

And so to the workplace: A trend in the 90’s, especially in American banks, was to give people absurdly-grand sounding titles. Overnight, everyone became an ‘Executive Vice-President’ – Now everyone’s a ‘Chief Customer On-boarding and Sustainability Ambassador’ or some such nonsense. Perhaps giving people titles in American culture doesn’t really mean that much. Not something to be done willy-nilly in places like Africa, Asia or Latin America though. In these typically high-power distant, ascriptive cultures, one quickly realises that Titles are a major form of social currency (even if completely unrelated to actual competence). They carry major implicit bias.

So my point is. Take notice of the culture in which you find yourself. Titles precede reputations. They precede acceptance. Don't be afraid to use them - even if your friends will make fun of you for doing so.

Two examples really drive this home. Once instead of giving everyone an unaffordable salary increase, we offered staff a little less, but with a grand sounding title. It was a hit! Secondly, try getting a meeting with just about anyone in corporate Africa without using some ridiculous, grandiose sounding title like, oh I don’t know, ‘Executive Vice-President in the Office of the Chief Executive’ and see how far you get. Good luck with that! Apparently having C-Suite access is the key to the kingdom, even if you're a one man show! Who cares, use the bias to your advantage!

Still not convinced of your own bias?

Assimilation. When we interview people, we automatically like people that are similar to ourselves. This happens even when a person is so obviously outwardly different to us. But if they speak like we do, telling us how much they enjoy rowing, watching the Tour de France and studying at UCT; they’re hired! Not because they are different; because they are the same! That’s bias! Never mind the sheer farcical spectacle of hopelessly unqualified managers and insecure HR gatekeepers fumbling their way through ironically named ‘competency-based’ interviews. In behavioural science research, we tend to heavily discount self-reporting if we can. A point missed in corporate interviews when people ask someone to 'self-describe a time when they showed leadership under pressure'...Bwahahahahaha!!!

One way to make a diversity of views more real in the work place is to get people to commit to their point of view BEFORE a meeting. This means we don’t write emails AFTER meetings; rather we share our ideas about the pertinent business issue AHEAD of the meeting. In writing.

Try it. Next time you call a meeting, ask everyone to prepare a few lines with their own thoughts on the issues to be discussed. This saves time. It actually means people need to think about things beforehand. Once in the meeting, each person shares their ideas – that way, people make a contribution rather than allowing themselves to be simply swayed by the loudest or most senior person in the room. It overcomes inter-generational cultural barriers, skewed power dynamics and increases engagement with the resolution. This method exponentially increases the quality of decision making in an organisation, AND circumvents our natural bias to agree with whoever it is most politically expedient. You, yes, you..I want to hear your ideas! Not what you think Simon wants you to say!

Bias can even work in your child’s favour! Tap into the Teachers’ Expectation Effect! If an Asian kid and a Black kid walk into a classroom, which child does the Teacher expect will do better at Maths? A good teacher doesn’t treat either child any differently, but we know this type of stereotyping happens. We’re not even arguing whether it is wrong, it is. Rather we are examining its effects. Plenty of research, and I mean plenty, shows that teachers (un)consciously expect a certain standard of work from a student. If they expect a high level of output from your child, they generally will not accept anything lower. This is good, because the teacher will put in the extra effort to ensure high standards are maintained. If they expect high marks and they get less, they want to know why and, more importantly, how this won't happen next time.

Now when a teacher receives information that your child is academically strong – so last year’s report card, or perhaps from another teacher (unlike in the workplace your self-reported ‘competency-based’ assessment of your own child's ability is usually discounted with the eye-rolling contempt it deserves) - your child starts with an advantage before the first lesson has even begun. The expectation of a high standard serves to reinforce continued high standards. An average expectation? More of the same…

Now imagine what happens in the workplace when we expect certain standards of work from different people? Yikes, this bias thing bites!

So what can parents do? Spend a little extra time with your kids – especially in the early pre-primary years (Grade 0 to Grade 3). Teach them the basics like reading and maths. By the time they see it in class, they’ve already seen it at home, and they are a few steps ahead. It boosts their confidence, it’s great bonding time and their teacher soon expects good work from them.

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