Why and how to override the “speed of like”

by | Jul 17, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

“Check your ego at the door.” This expression reminds us to switch the focus from ourselves to the bigger picture and purpose, especially when participating in meetings.

How about adopting a companion phrase that we can repeat when we begin meetings as well as interact with other human beings? This saying will prompt us to keep in mind that our co-workers, colleagues, peers and others are unique individuals not exactly like us.

My proposal is “Watch your ABC’s.”  A stands for assumptions, B for bias and C for context.

If you don’t question your assumptions and biases, especially in the context in which you’re working, you can easily goof or needlessly upset someone. As the late TV writer and filmmaker Jerry Belson wrote, “Never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME.”

For example, in our fast-paced work world, it’s easy to confuse the “speed of light” with the “speed of like.” We immediately gravitate toward “people like us” and view them more positively. This ingroup bias can take many forms – people who share our race, ethnicity, religion, home town, schools, our favorite sports team, our profession, etc.

Yet, just because you like someone and work well with them, you can’t assume they’re just like you. Their life experiences and their personal backgrounds – that is, the context that surrounds them – along with their DNA have shaped them into unique human beings.

Consider two exchanges that happened within hours of each other at the 2019 Multicultural Women’s National Conference in New York earlier this month. They illustrate how easy it is to assume that people are just like us.

During our workshop on What Men Really Think, the subject had turned to feedback, specifically the challenges of women getting straight, honest and actionable feedback from men. I suggested that women take the initiative and ask for feedback, which research shows is effective. (This was the topic of my first Forbes article, Turn the Tables and Ask for Feedback, back in February 2017.)

Mercedes Martin who was serving as the workshop’s lead facilitator jumped in and explained that women of color seldom receive meaningful feedback from men, especially white men. Men may make some trivial comments that they hope will pass as feedback, but they hesitate to provide any substantive input that can help women of color develop and improve their work performance.

My heart sank as I remembered that Mercedes had told me this at least twice before but it didn’t register. (Maybe because I’m not eager to update my article?) I do feel a strong affinity with her and as a result, I don’t always remember that she’s had very different life experiences “living on the hyphen” as a Cuban-born black woman and working extensively around the world, first in the military and then in consulting. And I can’t impose my perspectives on her and other women of color, especially since I’m a white privileged woman.

As for the other exchange, one of the panelists in a fireside talk earlier in the day downplayed the phenomena of “imposter syndrome.” The panelist – a high-powered lawyer who had switched professions to become the CEO of a professional association for engineers – oozed confidence. Yet just because she had more than enough confidence for all of us in the room doesn’t mean she can deny that others may feel like a fraud or inadequate, even if they too are highly accomplished.

An individual’s feelings are their feelings, just as their experiences are their experiences.

These differences between and among us are one of the valuable aspects of our multicultural society. Yet, unless we notice, embrace and talk openly about these differences and the implications, the differences can start to divide us.

As we discussed in our workshop, it helps to be curious and courageous. Think of yourself first as a cultural anthropologist wanting to learn about others you meet.

Second, follow the platinum rule in your interactions. Compared to the golden rule, the platinum rule highlights empathy. That’s because it advocates treating people how they want to be treated, recognizing that may be different from what we like and expect.

And just as importantly, recognize that even with the best of intentions, you may trip up. That happens to me more than I’d like to admit. And that’s probably why I find solace in the 1953 jazz standard,  “Teach Me Tonight.”  The lyrics talk about starting with the “A-B-C of it…getting right down to the X-Y-Z of it.”

And yes, while the “Teach Me Tonight”  lyrics have a sexual innuendo fitting for the 1950s, they still support the essential value of being open to learning.

What about you? What happens if you leave your ego at the door and watch your ABC’s – assumptions, biases and context?


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