How Often Do You Judge People Unfairly? What Is the Cost?

The tendency is common, the consequences are significant

Posted Jan 19, 2015

One of the key characteristics of an Objective Leader is the ability to judge and treat people fairly. Today is Dr. Martin Luther King’s 86th birthday and many of us are reflecting on the critical workplace issue of diversity and inclusion.

We know that misjudgments not only impact our ability to manage and lead effectively; it can also be very costly for leaders of global companies seeking to maintain or establish a business relationship in emerging markets where people, cultures, and customs are different. And of course, it can undermine the efforts of leaders of domestically focused companies seeking to diversify their workforce for competitive advantage in an increasingly diverse U.S. demographic. More catastrophically, misjudgments can drive discriminatory behavior such as racial profiling and contribute to the alarming drop-out, incarceration, and mortality rates among our minority youth.

The reality is many of us misjudge people—often—sometimes based on what they look like, what they are wearing, or perhaps what they sound like. In fact, my objectivity survey revealed that 75 percent of class or workshop participants responded that they misjudged someone at least once a month or more. The survey also found that 23.4 percent said they misjudged someone based on their appearance two or three times per month; 9.4 percent said once a month; 17.4 percent said two or three times per week; and 4.7 percent said they misjudged someone, simply based on their appearance, every day.

To be a more Objective Leader, we must first understand that we're all inherently subjective, and we all have unconscious biases. Studies reveal that most of us had definite entrenched stereotypes about blacks, women, and other social groups by the age of 5. Studies confirm that young North American children, both black and white, on average, assign more negative adjectives to the drawings of black faces and more positive adjectives to the drawing of white faces. Why does this still happen?

As children, we constantly appraised our environment and formed conclusions about our world. If we didn't see black faces in our Saturday morning cartoons, we may have assumed that black was not as good. If we didn't see women holding positions of power, we may have interpreted that to mean women were less than men. If we went to school and saw few, if any, black children, we may have drawn the conclusion that something was wrong with black people. We were just trying to make sense of our world. And no matter how progressive our parents were, as soon as we walked out the door, we had to confront peer pressure, the media, and the social structure that promulgated these stereotypes. As a result, many of us have unconscious biases that we are simply not aware of hard-wired into our brain's neural net.

An ongoing study of implicit bias—using the Implicit Association Test (IAT)—is being conducted by Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji and University of Washington professor Anthony Greenwald resoundingly confirms this unsettling truth:

"We all use stereotypes all the time, without knowing it. Although many of us think we're not prejudiced toward any group of people, our brain activity tells a different story."

The IAT requires users to rapidly categorize two concepts with an attribute (for example, the concepts "male" and "female" with the attribute "logical"). Easier pairings (faster responses) are interpreted as more strongly associated in memory than more difficult pairings (slower responses). The IAT measures unconscious attitudes about such concepts as race, gender-career, age, sexuality, and weight. Data from the first 4.5 million tests revealed that:

"Implicit biases are pervasive. For example, 80% of respondents show implicit negativity toward the elderly compared to the young; 75-80% of self-identified whites and Asians show an implicit preference for racial white over black.

People are often unaware of their implicit biases. Ordinary people, including the researchers who direct this project, harbor negative associations in relation to various social groups (i.e., implicit biases), even while honestly (the researchers believe) reporting that they regard themselves as lacking these biases.

Implicit biases predict behavior. From simple acts of friendliness and inclusion to more consequential acts, such as the evaluation of work quality, those who are higher in implicit bias have been shown to display greater discrimination."

As Babson College's first Chief Diversity Officer, I conduct corporate seminars in diversity and inclusion. I use the IAT to help people become aware that they may have biases and to lead them through a process of becoming a more objective leader and help them to transform those biases. The examples below represent common semimar experiences with the test results among executives:

  •  A white man was relieved and proud to learn that the IAT indicated that he had no preference of white over black. He said his father worked for the state department, and he grew up with children from all over the world. The key point in his experience is that when he was forming associations to make sense of his environment, he didn't conclude that people should be judged based on their skin color or nationality.
  •  A white woman admitted to feeling shame when her tests results revealed a slight preference for whites over blacks. She said she made a conscious effort to expose her children to a diverse group of children because she wants them to learn the value of differences. In spite of her values and her efforts to be unbiased in her actions, she still had an unconscious bias. She said she grew up in an all-white neighborhood and went to a predominately white school. The key point in her experience is that the associations she made were the result of her environment and that as a child she couldn't have drawn a different conclusion. It was important to reassure her and others like her that they should not feel shame for being biased, but they must continue to be vigilantly aware so that their biases don't steer discriminatory behavior.
  •  An African-American man bravely admitted that his IAT results showed that he had a preference for white over black. He was shocked, and embarrassed, because he consciously exposed his children to positive models of African-Americans—for instance, by buying both black and white Barbie dolls for his daughters. His result clearly demonstrates the power of the media, schools, and TV shows in the development of unconscious prejudices in all people. It was important to reassure him that I have seen many similar responses—where a person is biased against the group to which he or she belongs: women who sometimes feel conflicted at work because they associate women with family and men with careers; seniors who see themselves and other seniors as less valuable because they have an automatic preference for young over old; and people who are overweight having a preference for thin people—all based on societal mental models.

The latter two examples above, I think, are the most instructive in helping us understand how we can change and become more objective leaders. Our conscious brain can lead us away from the prejudices of our unconscious minds. Clearly the white woman's conscious values and choices led her away from any unconscious biases she developed growing up in a predominately white environment. Similarly, the African-American man, in spite of influences that he may have encountered as a child that led him to become biased against his own group, made a conscious decision to think and act differently.

To be an Objective Leader we must consciously choose to be more objective by overcoming our biases. With advances in our understanding of the brain, our relationship with our thoughts, emotions and biases and neuroplasticity, we now have the knowledge to do so. The question is: do we have the motivation?

What is your motivation to become an Objective Leader? How objective are you now? How often are you judging people unfairly, over-reacting to situations, or taking things personally. To become a more objective leader requires an initial self-assessment, an awareness of how you are currently responding to people, circumstances and events.

Watch for my next blog, which will include a survey so that you can make your own assessment.

Excerpts from: The Objective Leader: How To Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are to be released Febuary 10, 2015