Appearances can be deceiving

As humans, we’re prone to make judgement where we’ve drawn patterns out of random occurrences, misremembered something we thought happened at work, or attributed our performance to external influences. This is not a written piece about beating ourselves up over our mistakes. I believe we all have flaws, but it does not make us bad people. What I want to explore with you the reader, is why and how people sometimes succumb to biases. I also want to share how we can be more attuned to our biases before they occur.

On Personality and Character

Generally, personality traits are enduring and, in some cases, determined by our heredity. Character, which is considered the more malleable of the two, takes longer to evaluate as it is revealed in specific and/or uncommon circumstances. Sometimes we overemphasise the influence of behaviour and personality traits (funny, lazy, introverted) to explain someone’s innate character. This can happen by ignoring situational factors that may explain certain actions, especially when judging others.

On Predicting Behaviour

We each experience a multitude of interactions with the people around us. To manage that cognitive load, our brains have ‘mental shortcuts’ (known as heuristics), that refer to past experiences and previously acquired knowledge to make decisions.

For example, an older woman might remind us of our grandmother and because of that, we may assume she’s also gentle, kind, loving, and trustworthy. Yet there is no indication that she is trustworthy based on her age alone, or that in our heads she resembles a familiar image of our grandmother. This often means we are using limited or incomplete information to make judgements simply because it’s easier and faster for our brains to manage those interactions.

This does however leave us susceptible to prejudice, usually in the form of self-serving bias and the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). FAE is an individual’s inclination to assign someone’s actions to their character, whilst attributing our own actions to situational factors that we believe are outside our control. So, we hold others accountable for their actions, but justify our own actions as necessary due to our circumstances.

If someone cheated in an exam, would it be fair to then infer that they are dishonest, or likely to be unfaithful to their partner? A person on the autism spectrum, for instance, might struggle to articulate themselves in an interview yet they are fully capable to carry out the work. So, when we assume someone’s intentions this can create an inaccurate narrative to explain their behaviour. The assumption is that a person’s traits and behaviour in one situation prove that they will consistently behave so in other situations because of inherent characteristics.

If an employee was late or did not show up to an important meeting, as a manager we may be inclined to form a judgement of their character based on that sole incident and consider them unreliable. Ignoring any possible situational factors such as a family emergency that is unrelated to their character. This may influence our impression of that employee, negatively changing our perception of them.

The reality is that our behaviour is situation-dependent, where our actions are as much a result of our circumstances as they are inherent. Certain traits tend not to carry from situation to situation. Jon Elster in Explaining Social Behaviour challenges readers to consider the relationship between the situation, motivations, and the person instead of misattributing their traits to generalisations.

Cross-cultural interactions add a further layer of complexity as culture influences our beliefs and patterns of behaviour and moulds our personality. So, if it was not already difficult, we also need to consider the relativity of our judgement. If it feels cold outside to you and you believe it is, that belief (unless sanctioned by law) cannot be false.

“Behaviour is often no more stable than the situations that shape it.” – Jon Elster

These types of situations occur every day but when we learn about the ‘why’ before we make assumptions it helps us avoid our own biases and pitfalls. It also encourages interaction and connection with our team members to understand their viewpoints.

Whether as a recruiter, a people leader, or in a non-management role it is crucial to know and understand our cognitive biases and how they impact us in the workplace, so we are aware of how we treat and interact with others.

On Becoming Mindful of Our Biases

Given that we all have these biases, how do we address them so that we keep our minds open and treat people as fairly as we can?

There are habits we can all incorporate to develop a more conscious culture where we are more objective in how we see and treat others:

  •  Reflection and regulation – allow us to manage our emotions, behaviours, and impulses, giving us the time to put things into perspective as we process our thoughts and feelings. So, before we react or respond remember to breathe and think slowly
  • Self-awareness – provides clear knowledge and understanding of our own character, emotions, limitations, and motivations making it easier for us to relate with others
  • Empathy – helps us understand the experiences and emotions of others. When we exercise curiosity over judgement, it’s easier to understand that the lives of others are equally as complicated as ours
  • Listening – builds trust and makes others feel appreciated. This allows people to engage and invest in us
  • Objectivity – allows us to focus on factual situational information that is available to us, as opposed to making assumptions about why something happened. It safeguards us from mischaracterisation or misreading a person’s motives.
  • Reframe – it’s easy to resent an aspect of someone’s character based on limited information about the person. When we find ourselves in a similar situation, actively list positive qualities the person exhibits that we are grateful for. It helps balance our perception of the person and allows them the chance to “prove” themselves

Although these techniques are helpful it is important to note that the goal is not to make us infallible, but rather to understand how vulnerable we are to bias so we can try to be better. As we navigate the work landscape; a collective environment for most, we can overcome some of our own prejudice, and instead, judge them a little more fairly.