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Jumping To Conclusions – When Unconscious Biases Get In The Way

Jumping To Conclusions

Last week I was reading an old article that I found on the Harvard Business Review’s website called “How (Un)ethical Are You” by Dr Banaji and her peers. The article suggests that all of us are innately governed by our biases and our skewed perceptions of the world, and even if we strive intellectually to override these biases and we are still likely to sometimes behave unethically at work.  I wondered at the time whether perhaps Dr Banaji was being too extreme in suggesting decisions and actions can be so easily influenced by views we know to be unfair, out-dated or plain wrong.  Then I moved house on the weekend…

As I was standing on my new verandah watching the removalists wheel in my prized possessions I noticed in one corner, where all the furniture was being stacked, a cabinet on top of a trolly surrounded by a sea of boxes.  Clearly they’d forgotten to take back their trolly and if they weren’t careful they’d box it in (literally).  On top of that, they were stacking everything on the verandah and taking nothing inside the house.  So I pointed this out to one of the workers, a Bangladeshi man who moved with both a speed and deliberateness that I hadn’t seen since that cartoon of Speedy Gonzallis 35 years ago.  He brushed me off.

Somewhat annoyed I waited until another equally as fast and focused man whizzed passed me.  I stopped him and explained the trolly was trapped under the cabinet in the corner behind all the boxes.  He too waved me away saying ‘Ok, ok.’  So I retreated inside and fumed – Clearly it wasn’t ok. Clearly they were going too fast to notice the small, important, details.  Obviously they hadn’t thought bigger picture and longer term. Undoubtedly they hadn’t planned the unpacking process and were just dumping things in the corner. They evidently didn’t care for me or my belongings – I was just another job to them… Then the truck drove away with only two of the four removalists inside.  They were driving back to the old house for a second load and unexpectedly leaving the other staff behind to continue working.

Slowly and methodically I watched these removalists use outstanding precision and diligent patience to take each box and every item of furniture inside the house and place them carefully in the right spot.  By the time they needed the trolly for the large furniture, they’d efficiently cleared all the boxes out of the way.  They didn’t even need to reload the cabinet, they simply wheeled it straight into the new lounge room.  How’s that for great planning!!

Suddenly Dr Banaji’s words were ringing in my ears…  Clearly, obviously, undoubtedly and evidently it was I who was unfair in my earlier assumptions.  I was seeing the world only through the filter of my lens.  I was the one who wasn’t standing back and seeing the bigger picture. I was the one who was biased. I’m sorry to say that earlier when I was fuming, I’d even unfairly thought stupid things like, “In Bangladesh they mustn’t take care of people’s belongings since they are so blazé with my things now!”  Dr Banaji was right.  I felt terrible about myself and terrible I’d ever doubted her.

So, moving forward, what do I need to do to make sure I’m not biased, whether personally or professionally?

I need to continuously reflect on my thoughts and opinions, to check that I’m being appropriate.  I need to stand back and consider other different points of view.  I’ve got to have conversations with those around me to test my assumptions and at all times be especially vigilant in asking myself whether I am behaving (un)ethically.

Thanks Dr Banaji for helping to keep me honest…

Please note:  I did apologise to the removalists who ever so kindly brushed me off.

Source: Harvard Business Review – When unconscious biases get in the way.