I like to believe that I am an objective being, actively in control of my decisions and actions, especially at work.
Yet time and again, I find myself less than proud of some of my past behaviors. I’ve had demographic biases toward people; I’ve opposed arguments without assessing their basis; and I’ve agreed to ideas that are against my personal values.
Fact is, I am often a slave of my subconscious, of my brain running on cruise control. And I’m starting to recognize that like animals, I have instincts that are challenging to overpower.
Why is this a problem? It’s a problem if our actions differ from our desired actions. If our brain on autopilot takes decisions that go against those we’d take consciously. It’s especially a problem if our instincts get in the way of creating a fair, transparent, and innovative workplace. The type that startup companies in this globalized world need.
So let’s take a moment to recognize our instincts. Allow me to share three instinctual behaviors that get in the way of…
… debating with the boss
I can recall numerous occasions where I’ve disagreed with my boss and yet didn’t try to voice or argue the matter. I’ve disagreed over the team’s compensation plan, our holiday policy, and even our company strategy. Yet on many of these issues, I’ve kept my thoughts to myself.
Well, to survive of course. Self-preservation is the need to keep myself alive and economically healthy. It is also the reason I will avoid arguing with my boss. Fact is, I see my boss as the hand that feeds me, so the last thing I want to do is to create conflict and paint myself as an enemy. I simply don’t want to get fired.
How can I become more vocal with my thoughts?
Everytime that I disagree with my boss nowadays, I first note it down in my journal to first avoid losing that thought. I then let it sit for 24 hours to ensure that my reactionary emotions are gone. If I still disagree after that, I will start to work on a way to introduce my disagreement, gathering evidence to support my thoughts, and planning for the right time to speak up. I also find it helpful to state my goals (why I’m of this different opinion), because they are often the same as my boss’s goals, so it helps us start the conversation from the same footing.
… being excited about changes
Most people I know react to a new proposed change with skepticism. Not many individuals react to a surprise change with a “Hooray!” Ok, maybe extreme sport athletes do. But for most of us commoners, we love a good old routine.
For the simple reason that we are creatures of habit and routine. As explored by NPR and Psychology Today, our habits and routines help us navigate our days with greater ease, greater comfort. As I’m typing this blog post, I am not actively thinking about which letter to press on my keyboard, my brain has made typing a habit, and I only have to think about what I want to say. There are dozens and dozens of tools that each of us depend on to do our work. To become more productive, we make a habit of using all these tools.
Yet when things change, our habits and routines have to be reset. We thus are naturally upset by change. If someone was to change the letter placement of my laptop keyboard, I’d be frustrated regardless of whether it’s better for my health or not. It simply takes me outside my comfort zone and I have to re-learn basics of typing again. We thus dislike it when people change the tools or processes we’ve grown accustomed to.
Being skeptical of change is in my opinion a good thing – it ensures that we take the time to properly review any proposed change’s potential impact, and take the necessary precautions. Yet this instinct can also backfire when people are stubbornly opposed to change without reason. According to some studies, 70% of change management initiatives fail. I’m willing to bet that people’s instinctive opposition to change has something to do with that.
How can a workplace assess changes objectively?
On our team, we first make sure that there are no surprises. No changes are made or even proposed before we first accurately pinpoint the problem at hand. We then work to ensure that all stakeholders agree on the problem. Only then do we start working to find a solution to the problem. Since all impacted parties are already involved and have agreed to participate in solving the problem, there is usually little to no opposition to any proposed changes. They architected it together.
… objectively judging people, especially individuals that are different
When I interview candidates, I often find myself asking more questions to people that did not come from a background (education, experience) similar to those of existing team members. In a way, we could call it playing it safe, but on another level, I’m simply judging people differently because they come from different walks of life.
As I consulted colleagues from other companies and startups on how they handled these situations, it became clear that this problem exists across industries, and in companies large and small. Age, gender, education, ethnicity, and even fashion discriminations were rampant. My colleagues and I both suffered such discriminations as well as contributed to them. We realized that most of the time, people were not even aware that they were discriminating. We’re talking about really smart, often Ivy league educated managers that would fight for feminist causes or march with Martin Luther King should he still be with us.
In my opinion, it comes down to the fact that we fear the unknown. We are afraid of things we are not familiar with: Foreign cultures, people, ideas. Here, foreign can take the form of a different neighborhood in the same city, not just another country. In its worst form, our fear morphs into Xenophobia, as witnessed in the recent Brexit. Day-to-day, we avoid certain parts of the city, sit with colleagues that are similar to us at the cafeteria, or ask some people more questions than others at interviews.
The question then begs… Why in our multicultural society (at least in much of the western world), are we still so afraid? Haven’t we been exposed to enough different people, cultures, and ideas that we can comfortably shed away our biases?
Well, fact is that even though there are multiple cultures found near each other geographically, there are limited interactions between them. Cultures are not mixing.
Simply glossing over a demographic map of the USA will expose the fact that most neighborhoods in cities are segmented demographically. African Americans, White Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans can all be found living apart from each other, in different neighborhoods. How do we expect to really understand other cultures if we are never exposed to them? Do we really understand their differing values and cultures? The situation is even worse in rural areas and smaller cities.
So this leaves us popular culture to educate us on the values and lives of foreign cultures. Yet no luck there either. According to research from USC, 73% of actors in Hollywood are white, 13% black, 5% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. That means that we are all overwhelmingly educated on white American culture, but little else.
All these stats are further augmented by the fact that 75% of white Americans do not have non-white friends. White Americans thus have no clue about the values, culture, and ideologies of the ~70 million non-white neighbors they share their land with.
This problem persists in the startup ecosystem and Silicon Valley, where most people are White or Asian. It reflects the demographic of university populations.
So how can I avoid being biased toward foreign people / cultures?
Simply being aware that we feel safer around people like us, and less so around those that look and think differently is a good start. Acknowledging we need people who think differently for innovation may be the next step. Let’s not fear our differences, but embrace them. We are all different, not better or worse.
The next time that candidates are being interviewed, perhaps we should take cues from musical orchestras and do it behind a curtain with voices masked. I’m kidding. Let’s all start with being more aware of how our brain operates on cruise control.
The next time that someone proposes a change, at work or at home, on how we do things, take note of our initial reaction. Did we oppose it instinctively, or did we keep our mind open and curious?
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