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Snap judgements and unconscious bias

I read a very moving post this morning about the unconscious bias that sits behind snap judgements and I realised how fortunate I have been to have (almost) never experienced this.

I do remember one incident, many years ago, when I was leading a marketing and sales team at Philips Electronics. We had an exhibition stand booked at the Windows Computer fair and the day before the event was due to open, I was dressed in old jeans and T-shirt, moving boxes and bits of hardware around the stand.

A guy from a nearby stand called out, in a pretty rude and offhand way, for me to pass a screwdriver. When I turned around the he barely looked up at me, although it was the same guy that a week before had met me for coffee, wanting to get me to take out a full-page ad in the show guide.

I said something like ‘Hello Andy, how are you?’

He answered ‘Ah, oh, er, yes, yes… hello… er, Steve, yes, yes, nice to see you, how are you?’ A miraculous turnaround of tone of voice and body language, all in the space of 5 seconds.

It seemed obvious to me that he had made an unconscious assumption someone in scruffy working clothes was not worth talking to and only when he realised it was a potential client did he start to make the effort to be polite and friendly. Of course, I was not offended, but I was a little surprised to experience what it was like to be treated entirely differently just because of my appearance.

It was a lesson early in my career that overlooking people who don’t look like you, dress like and sound like you is not only unfair but also misses the potential value that person can contribute. I have been fortunate that my gender, my name and my skin colour have never been a hinderance to being invited to interviews, being hired for a job or getting promotion.

As a coach, I now have the privilege of working with many different clients, and while I make no claims about insights from my own lived experience I do know that lived experience is what has to be heard, recognised and respected.


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