A lot of people take prejudices lightly. They do not think about it as something important, something that could change the outcome of their decisions. They might not even realize that they are making a prejudice towards something. Is it something that people should consider thinking about? Is it important or can it be left ignored? What does a prejudice actually mean? How does it influence a leadership decisions? How can one avoid making prejudices?
The official definition of prejudice, According to Oxford Dictionary, is “Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”. I think the definition is clear however there is one missing thing. The dictionary does not mention that prejudices can be positive and negative. A lot of people tend to think about prejudice as a negative opinion. But that is not true. I will show you two related cases so you can see the difference.
Consider a person that promotes animal shelters. He posts 5+ posts on Facebook about animal shelters. He encourages people to donate money, food, toys, etc. But this particular person has never donated a single penny to the shelter. You do not know this information. Only thing that you notice are the countless number of posts on Facebook. You may think that the person is nice, really interested in animal shelters. You make a positive prejudice towards him. However the prejudice is not based on actual experience and therefor may be misleading. In this case you got tricked by that person. Consider a person that does not promote animal shelters. He seems to not care about the shelters at all. He never mentions shelters, never encourages people to donate anything. However this person donates money to the shelter every week. Again, you do not know this information. Based on the previous informations you end up making negative prejudice towards that person. This prejudice is again not based on actual experience and it is not correct. In both cases you can see that the prejudice was not correct. Of course there are prejudices that might end up being correct. But nobody should count on the fact that every prejudice that he or she makes will end up being correct.
Prejudice in real life
Prejudice is in everyones lives. If you start thinking about it you will be surprised how many times a day you make a prejudice. I will try to mention few examples and possible ways of avoiding those situations.
Personal (non-professional) life
Let’s firstly talk about situations that are not related to strategy or leadership. Everyday, when you go to work or school you meet a lot of people. You start judging people based on their appearance, gender, nationality, orientation, political opinion, etc. You start putting people into groups. What are the reasons behind your decisions? Why did you put some of the people into one group and some of the people into the another groups? Are there any experience based reasons? Aren’t your decision based just on the look and the first impression? By making prejudice towards someone or something you lose the opportunity to learn something new, to make new connections with people, to make new friends. This does not hold only for people, but also things like food, drinks, sports, restaurants etc. If you immediately reject something because of your assumption that you might not like it, you just throw away a chance to gain new experience, new skills, new connections. Of course, everything will not be good, you will not feel comfortable in every situation. But once you find a real reason why you should not do that then it will not be prejudice anymore, it will be opinion based on a real reason.
Personal life is not the only place where you can encounter a prejudice. If you start monitoring your surrounding in your workplace you will notice that a lot of your colleagues and your team members, if you are their leader, tend to make prejudices. They instantly reject ideas, they respond to problems with a prejudice, etc. They never agree with their team. They do not want to listen to any suggestions. Is that correct?
A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgements. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgements, that is, with prejudices. Such attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides. Hannah Arendt
It is certainly not correct. They miss the opportunity to learn something new. If they do not make a prejudice they may realise that they were not correct and the proposed solution is indeed correct. They may found area they did not know about and be really interested and good at it.
If you are a team leader try to teach your team members to avoid prejudices. Try to teach them how to reconsider the situation before they instantly reject (or accept) it with an opinion which is not based on real experience. Their decisions should be based on real facts and not just on their personal preferences.
Another place where you have to be careful are brainstorming sessions. Brainstorming is about coming up with a solution, idea etc. When a team member comes with a possible solution and you (or anyone from the team) know that the solution is not quite correct (and it even may be funny) then do not just instantly reject his solution (and mainly do not laugh). Try to discuss the solution, explain why it is not correct. If you do not discuss this, your team member might get afraid and stop suggesting solutions.
Next I will mention interviews. Do not ever make prejudices during interview. The person that is being interviewed is stressed, nervous. Do not make a prejudice towards him. Take him as an equal person to everyone else nevertheless his gender, race, voice, name or any other qualities. Even though he is shy, introvert, etc., he might be really good addition to your team, he might have skills and experience which will help you and your team members. On the other hand the person that is really talkative, funny, friendly might not be a a really good addition to your team at all.
Last but not least, every leader encounters problems, stressed periods, impossible deadlines. Do not make decisions without facts based on real data. Do not come up with foolish solutions. Just slowly think about the problem, think about the possible solutions, consult them with your team members. As Hannah Arendt said “A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgements, that is, with prejudices.”, think about this quote every time you encounter a crisis.
These are not all the possible scenarios where you can encounter a prejudice. I think at this time you are already aware of other cases.
One cannot stop making prejudices. The idea behind this is whenever you realise that you make a prejudice or you are going to make a prejudice, try to think what could happen if you do not make it. Of course there are cases that even if you realise that the final decision will not change. I do not want you to try everything you see, speak to everyone you meet, etc. I want you, the next you make a prejudice, to just think what could happen if you do not make it.
If you are a team leader believe me that prejudices will only introduce further problems, fights, misunderstandings. Try to lead your team so everyone makes decisions with clear head, without any biases. You will gain more and lose less.