We all make immediate assumptions about each other - it’s part of our basic survival instinct driven by our reptilian brain. In a nano-second we decide whether the person in front of us is likely to be more or less safe or dangerous, and then we act according to that instant answer, even as more clues to come into focus.
Yes, our instincts, not our assumptions, are mostly reliable, and what Oprah Winfrey calls, “the whisper” happens when our bodies communicate danger messages to our brain. Both are important, and potentially life-saving, in dangerous situations. However, most of our time working with other people isn’t happening in that red – danger – fight, flight, or freeze zone. And yet…we can too easily fall into the assumption trap about people in our workplaces as if different equals dangerous. This is just plain wrong – and it’s bad for business.
Let’s use me as a case study for a moment. How well do you know me? You can easily find my website, locate me on Facebook and LinkedIn, and maybe you’ve even read some of my SHRM blogs. If any of these are true – at first glance, you might assume I’m a white, American, female, somewhere in the last third of my life, and apparently, I like to write. You might discover I worked and studied at Cornell University and that leadership and coaching are my passions. Ok – that’s about it until and unless we connect far more intimately, in some way – at a presentation, or maybe you have hired me to work with you, or maybe you’ve heard about me from someone and that reference trust is good enough for you.
Here’s a bit of my story that you don’t know. My immigrant Iranian father founded a Community College in upstate NY. My best friend in second grade was a little boy named Aaron, a Black boy whom I adored and who adored me. We moved to Florida when I was 8. On the trip south, there were signs: “Whites Only”, “Coloreds Only” at every gas station and water fountain. I didn’t know what it meant to be white or black other than using my crayons, so I used whatever I saw first and got yelled at by the gas man, “Hey kid, can’t you read!?” My parents were as stunned as I was and had no idea why this was happening. Can you imagine what it was like for me to be in a white’s only school and not allowed to talk or play with children whose skin tone was the same as my best friend, Aaron’s?
And my list could go on and on, just like your list. We do not know far more than we think we know about each other. And yet, a boatload of assumptions are made about each of us every day, by everyone, everywhere.
Here’s the rub. You don’t know my story and I don’t know yours. So let’s admit that is also true in our workplaces and let’s get curious. What’s it like to be Black shopping in a department store or applying for a job anywhere in the country? I can promise you it isn’t anything like being White in a department store or applying for a job.
Our biases, conscious and unconscious, are happening right now, in real-time, all the time. For instance, let’s say everything on my website is true whether I’m Black or White, male or female, what assumptions might you make about each version of me? Black male, White male, White Female, Black Female? And these are only two things about me that are mostly obvious. What if my name was Rohana Ammonpur, or Jamal Rodriquez? What if I look like I’m 25 or 75? Whose story are you more or less interested in? Be honest with yourself; it will help you begin move away from the trap of assumption blindness.
The only way we can overcome our own biases is TO PAY ATTENTION to our thoughts, reactions, assumptions, and the stories we make up about the people we see, work with, apply for a job, meet at a party, bump into at the grocery store. If it matters to you, ask yourself – “how can I really get to know this person and learn what it is like to be in her shoes - his shoes - every single day?”
What’s in it for you? That’s always the core question, isn’t it? Paying attention, really taking the time to hear my story, her story, his story… will give your life and work far more richness, opportunity, wisdom, empathy, compassion, and more success in whatever you do, wherever you do it. And that is a promise.
To learn more about our shared journey read the wonderful work being done in healing our workplaces at https://togetherforwardatwork.shrm.org/