Okay so that title might be a little misleading: I’m afraid it isn’t just me on this one folks. We’re all a terrible judge of character. Sad but true. We’re laden with bias and most of the time when we meet people, we judge and make assumptions based on what we want to see and what we want them to be. We judge people that we really don’t know by our own fixed lens.
On the flip side of that, the funny thing is we likely also care too much what that other person thinks of us. So we oscillate between charm offensive and judgement in an alarming manner.
Whilst I’m happy to say it happens to me less frequently, I can still taste the horrible feeling you get when a first encounter with a new person goes awry. You see it often in public, when a couple of strangers misread one another, start to quarrel and neither feels like they can back down.
One of them says something that is either taken the wrong way, or perhaps said in the wrong way, and it starts off a chain reaction which deteriorates rapidly. It’s often not even about the person they are faced with, they’ve allowed the emotions they are experiencing to colour their interaction with another person.
It’s a horrible feeling to feel misunderstood, and I’ve always been someone who tries to get both parties to a place of understanding as fast as possible. I’ve always been hell bent on winning people over (winning others over has kept showing up as one of my top five strengths according to Gallup these past few years). The challenge is that you can’t always do that. Sometimes, no matter what you say, the other person is already too far gone and the damage irreversible.
In the context of day to day life, these interactions, whilst energetically damaging are seemingly harmless. There are other times, though, when they quite literally mean a case of life and death.
I recently finished ‘Talking with Strangers’ by the rather brilliant Malcolm Gladwell. I love the way he manages to dig deep into the world to attempt to provide data and explanations of this kind of human behaviour. He gives a thoughtful view on recent tragedies like that of the death of Sandra Bland, on why it happened in the first place and how it might have been avoided.
The premise around ‘Talking with Strangers’ was around bias and conditioning, and our ability to get one another so so wrong. We think we are able to judge one another clearly, when in truth, we just aren’t very good at it. We think that when we see a human being we can read their behaviour, when we actually can’t.
Early on in the book he references a study by a group in New York City, where they quite literally pitched judges against AI. Of 554,689 defendants for arraignment hearings, the judges chose to release just over 400,000. They fed the AI systems the same data as the judges and asked it to make recommendations of the 400,000 it would release.
They then assessed the list and the computer system hands down was able to predict the likelihood of repeat offences. The folks on the AI list were 25% less likely to commit a crime whilst awaiting trial.
The machine flagged 1% of the defendants as high risk, stating that well over half would offend if released. The judges had released 48.5% of them. The only data that the humans had over the machines was having seen the defendants in person; and that was where the judgements were made. They saw people and thought they knew them. They made decisions based in bias.
My paraphrasing won’t do his book justice, so I absolutely recommend you hit the source and read the whole thing for yourselves.
Moving this conversation to the professional world I inhabit, I’d like to consider for a moment how this applies in the workplace, where frankly this kind if thing shows up all the time. People may not be total strangers, yet they fail to read each other, fail to really see each other and most definitely fail to hear each other. They make judgements based on bias and that can leave us in a very dangerous place indeed.
A misfire on comms at work can have reverberating repercussions for a long while. It can impact not just the individuals concerned, but also have a bearing on the work an entire team is able to produce.
I am no different, and have definitely had those moments. To work towards having less and less of them, we have to take responsibility for our role in creating them. Often we play the victim of the story, when in actual fact we always have our part to play in their total creation. The hunter and the deer both have their roles to play” if the deer wasn’t there the hunter wouldn’t be hunting.
I remember one particular work relationship where I felt this the most. For a long time I allowed myself the indulgence of feeling like the victim of the piece. Until one day I decided to shift my lens from one of defence to one of love and understanding and the dialogue with my ‘hunter’ shifted. The whole dynamics of our relationship then changed.
The other place we need to be careful of this dynamic is in the workplace is, of course, with hiring. Making the wrong, bias laden, judgement about someone in an interview process can kill the very thing that would make our business thrive; diversity.
The nuances of how a question is asked in an interview and what the non verbal communication signals are can make the difference as to whether the person being interviewed feels safe to answer fluently or feels not safe and therefore potentially stifled.
Once someone feels unsafe in this kind of interaction, whether consciously or unconsciously, we’re really never going to see who that person really is. They won’t feel comfortable, they will feel judged and they will likely have a horrible experience.
As I’ve written and said many times, there is no magic pill to fix this stuff, there is only awareness:
- Awareness of who we really are in the world.
- Awareness of the part we play in the daily interactions in our lives.
- Awareness of our triggers and conditioning.
- Awareness of when we are at odds with someone, and whether we have stopped being impartial.
- Awareness of the toolkit you need to build inside yourself to give yourself a chance of choosing a better response.
- Commitment to lovingly create awareness in others when you see the need.
Whilst the argument from Gladwell is palpable around a computer being able to make better decisions than us, until we can be sure that even they are coded in a way that is free from bias, human beings simply need to do a better job at levelling up on this stuff.
That’s the only way we will ever build inclusive businesses where we get to hear every voice we need to hear to grow in a way that supports the communities and businesses that we serve.
How about we all make a pact to create the right amount of awareness amongst ourselves to be able to do our jobs properly, and by doing so allow the best people to have a fair shot at doing theirs?