Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Stereotypes, Distrust, and Bias

Dear David,

I am a middle manager and have a boss who doesn’t trust one of my employees and—by extension—he doesn’t trust me. My employee has sensed the distrust. Even though this employee meets expectations, does a good job, and is liked by everyone else, my boss seems to dislike her demeanor. I am working with the employee on changing her demeanor, but it is brutal on morale. Any tips for improving morale without undermining my boss?

Manager in Distress

Dear Manager in Distress,

Thanks for a truly intriguing question. It contains the kind of messy complications that make people and workplaces so interesting.

List and Prioritize Your Concerns. With complicated issues like this one, I begin by listing the different concerns. The list helps me identify the concerns that are most central.
Here is my initial list.

• Your boss doesn’t trust this employee.
• Your boss is beginning to wonder if he can trust you.
• Your boss’s opinions might (or might not) be based on stereotypes or implicit bias.
• The employee performs well on the job.
• The employee senses the distrust.
• You wonder if you SHOULD get the employee to change (or would this be buying into your boss’s biases?).
• You wonder if you CAN get the employee to change (how can you coach about subtle issues related to demeanor?).
• You wonder whether, if the employee does change, your boss will notice and reward the changes.

It looks as if the highest-priority question to answer is whether your manager’s mistrust of this employee is merited. The way you answer this question will determine how you act on most of the other issues. If you decide that your manager’s concerns are merited, then your challenge is to coach your employee to change. If you decide his concerns are not merited, then your challenge is to influence him. Of course, the answer isn’t always clear-cut. But I would begin by examining your manager’s concerns.

Explore Others’ Paths. Your manager is telling himself a story. His story is that your employee’s behavior fits a pattern that indicates she can’t be trusted. You need to create a safe way for your manager to examine his story. Safety is very important here. Don’t lecture your manager on the need to avoid bias, and don’t argue for your own perspective. Instead, ask questions that help your manager explore his own point of view.

Focus on the Facts. Ask questions about what your manager has observed and what he had expected. Look for the gap. Get examples of what your manager means by “the employee’s demeanor.” We all attend to people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and other nonverbal cues to try to read what they are thinking and feeling. Ask your manager about what he has seen, and what it means to him.

Example: Suppose you ask your manager for examples of what he has seen, and he replies, “In meetings and in presentations her demeanor is weak, hesitant, and unsure. She pauses, questions her own conclusions, and allows others to push her around—instead of making firm recommendations and backing them up with facts.”

Check to see if you and your manager have seen the same behaviors, and whether the behaviors are representative of the employee.

Examine the Story. Encourage your manager to explore the logic of his story—to re-examine the conclusions drawn from the facts. For example, is your manager concluding that your employee doesn’t prepare adequately, that she is too easily intimidated, or that she is too indecisive? Ideally, you will help your manager ask two questions: a.) Do I really have enough facts to draw this negative conclusion? b) Is there another more positive conclusion that fits the facts?

Visibility and Exposure. When you’re talking with your manager, the goal isn’t to convert him to your point of view. It’s to get him to reconsider his initial views, and to be open to new information. However, this new information can’t come from you; it must come from the employee. What you can do is provide the employee with visibility and exposure—opportunities to prove herself in ways that overcome your manager’s concerns.

Own the Problem. If you agree with your manager that the employee needs to change, then make sure you own it. Don’t blame the need to change on your manager. Use natural consequences to explain the links between the employee’s actions and outcomes she cares about. She needs to understand the business reasons for changing, or she may attribute it to whim or bias.

Focus on the Facts. The more specific you are, the more helpful you will be. The ideal would be to show your employee a video of herself in action, and to go through it frame by frame. If you don’t have video, then use quotes and demonstrations, not just explanations to show her what she does right and wrong. Imagine you are coaching an actor to improve her performance of a part. The focus isn’t on her words or the content of what she is saying as much as it’s on her nonverbals.

Follow Up. Ask your employee for permission to cue her in real time. Most of the actions that create “demeanor” are automatic or even unconscious. She won’t know she’s demonstrating them, unless you can signal her.

I hope this is helpful,

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9 thoughts on “Stereotypes, Distrust, and Bias”

  1. Russ Winterbotham

    All sorts of my own biases were triggered by the title, and I kept waiting for the author to say something with which I disagreed, so that I could write a snarky rebuttal…

    Still waiting…

    1. Bob Jones

      OK, so I have had time to process my thoughts and biases. I think David Maxfield is guilty of “link baiting” – or good marketing – depending on what your own bias is towards Headline Writing.

      I think Mr. Maxfield raises some terms with emotional trigger connotations, and then “Pussy Foots” around them.

      The title mentioned Stereotypes and Bias, and Mr. Maxfield later mentions the term “Implicit Bias” – and those terms are most frequently heard in discussions of Racial issues, particularly with regards to African Americans, or folks who would refer to themselves as Black.

      So, I felt there was a bit of a Bait and Switch tactic when Mr. Maxfield’s examples of demeanor involved ” her demeanor is weak, hesitant, and unsure. She pauses, questions her own conclusions, and allows others to push her around”

      Stereotypes and Implicit Bias regarding Demeanor arise do not typically involve African Americans coming across as “weak, hesitant, unsure, questioning their own conclusions, and allowing themselves to be pushed around.”

      Further, I’ll cut to the chase and suggest that the Stereotypes and Biases *most* likely to be operative involve behaviors that would most likely be displayed by folks who would refer to themselves as Black, as opposed to African American.

      Black folks are not typically discriminated against for being perceived as weak, wishy-washy and allowing themselves to be pushed around.
      It is just the opposite.

      Blacks are not typically shot down or treated with violence during interactions with Police or other authority figures for being overly compliant, questioning their own behavior and being non-aggressive.

      Blacks can be perceived as being overly loud, obnoxious, not imposing any filters on what they say or do, and for being threatening, aggressive and combative.

      Many Black folks perceived that way would mock Daniel Goleman’s principles of Emotional Intelligence, particularly with regards to Self-awareness and Self-control.

      Many Black folks are raised in environments where one does not survive long or well if one cannot assert oneself and fight back with aggression, either verbal or physical.

      There are attitudes that if you cannot protect your property then you really don’t deserve to keep it – and this applies to both material goods and Women – who often are treated as commodities.

      Behaviors and attitudes which serve Black folks well in the streets and in their own neighborhoods often clash with ideals regarding Propriety in Business Settings located within the Dominant Culture (Dominant from a Sociological perspective).

      Sometimes, Black folks moving into the Business World are not aware of certain attitudes towards Etiquette in the Dominant Culture, and sometimes, they simply “don’t give a damn.”

      Certainly, the majority of Black folks and white folks have much in common, but there are certain subgroups which simply do not share the same cultural values…and it is at that intersection where many conflicts arise.

      Now, to the people chomping at the bit to excoriate me for being Racist or insensitive, you have probably not been present in conversations where Black folks make fun of “tight-assed white people” and make statements such as “You can kiss my Black ass…”

      And, in many situations, I do not disagree with their assessment.

      But, isn’t this article also about the issue of whether Black folks should be expected to modify their perceptions, values and behaviors to match those of certain white folks with the power and resources to define and impose “standards”?

      Do the people who sign the checks get to determine which demeanors are to be cultivated, and which ones need to be “managed”?

      1. David Maxfield

        Hi Bob,

        Thanks for your response. I’m sorry I didn’t hit the center of your interests. I focused on the fact that the questioner’s employee is a woman and the questioner’s boss is a man. The questioner never stated what their ethnicity. As I’m sure you know, the literature on implicit bias tends to focus on two groups: women and minorities. In this case, I focused on the fact that the employee was a woman, and–when I had to make up details related to her demeanor–I borrowed from common stereotypes about women.
        My goal in the conversation is to have the boss examine and question his story–his stereotypes, possible biases–the basis of his mistrust. Of course, the basis of mistrust might be very genuine. The employee might be untrustworthy. However, since the questioner trusts the employee, there is a good chance that the boss’s concerns are his problem–rather than the employee’s.
        At the end of the day, your final question is a tough one. Often it is the boss, the owner, the customer, or the officer who has the power to demand the other person to change. And, in the short term, changing is probably the safest course of action. However, we need strong human resource departments, police oversight, and anti-discrimination laws because we know that “might doesn’t make right.”

  2. Gladys

    It would be interesting to know what the demeanor is. This article made me think of the post about how women are perceived as being more harsh when “taking a stand” than men are when they say the same things in the same tone of voice and with the same body language, which is another type of bias.

  3. David Maxfield

    Gladys, I’m glad you noticed that! I agree. “Demeanor” is such a broad term that it hides the facts. At worst, it covers over bias. At best, it’s less than helpful.

  4. Joanne

    This story made me wonder about clashing personality types. For example if the boss is detail oriented and the employee tends to respond in a general big picture way, the boss may think the employee isn’t responsible. For example, boss asks ‘how much did we spend on pizza last year’ and employee says, ‘oh I think it was around $300’. Then the boss asks the CFO and it turns out it was actually $401.95. (Been there!)

  5. Steven Porter

    I like the advice of asking questions to promote dialog and partnering with the boss and the employee to come to a successful conclusion. My experience has been that managers often attempt to solve “a problem” without creating the partnership. The results of solving the problem for the individuals may cause unintended consequences in the system.

  6. Carin

    Would you offer a couple of suggested questions for your recommendation, “ask questions that help your manager explore his own point of view”?

  7. Lost in Translation | Mona Earnest

    […] To help foster good communication, whether it’s with your spouse, teenager or co-worker, we have to start somewhere. Here are a few things to consider from the authors of Crucial Conversations on Stereotypes, Distrust & Bias: […]

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