Emotional Intelligence, Interpersonal Communication Skills, and Leadership Blog

Prejudice Distorts Communication

How can you limit the ill effects of prejudice in your organization? A start is to realize that prejudice is happening all the time. We all have biases that filter much of what we hear, see and think. This hurts communication because biases distort reality.

Here is a case about how bias distorted reality as reported by an Executive Coaching client of mine. As the Executive Director of a large agency, he received a letter from his Board of Directors saying he needed to improve some behaviors. One was that they claimed he was too aggressive and hostile.

I asked him if he knew what this was about. “No.” I suggested he go interview some of his Board of Directors to find out what they meant. He courageously did interview them for feedback. One of them told him, “At the X meeting, you and another man got into a big argument. You got much too mad in front of us. Afterward, some board members complained that you were too hostile.”

Now my client at least knew about one event that generated the label, “too aggressive and hostile.” He complained to me that this was a bias he had not foreseen. He said it was a bias against black men like him. He said, “Whites are afraid of angry black men. I triggered that fear. They overlooked the fact that the man I argued with was also black and we both were able to patch it up at the end in front of everyone. This was a vigorous conversation in which we both displayed passion. Black people are comfortable with being angry and showing it.”

He continued, “Another fact that they are probably unaware of is that my predecessor got furious at times. I saw him get much angrier than I was. And nobody on the Board ever said anything to him, in my opinion, because he was white. They cut more slack for whites.”

This is bias in action, cutting more slack for some than for others. Here is a good image for how prejudice works. It is like having an archery range with two targets. One target has a bull’s-eye that is 6 inches in diameter; the other bull’s-eye is 12 inches in diameter. One group of people gets the bigger bull’s-eye and the minority group gets the smaller one. As a minority person, you have to be a better shot to succeed. That is the bias. And that bias distorts perceptions and communication.

To limit this bias, you have to increase your awareness of when it is operating in you or your organization. This is hard to do. One way is to ask for minority people to give you feedback and be willing to change your perceptions.

What if the white Board members had discussed this matter with my client ahead of their sending him their letter? They would have heard his retort just as I did. Maybe that would have caused them to re-examine their conclusion about too much aggression. Maybe they would remember the angry moments of my client’s predecessor and realize they were using a smaller bull’s-eye for my black client.

How can you seek feedback and create dialogue in your organization? Do you have any ideas for us all to read? Please reply in the Leave a Comment section below or with the above link, Comments.

One comment for this post.

  1. Comment from Private Krankenversicherung Vergleich:

    You made some good points there. I did a search about the topic and hardly got any specific details on other sites, but then happy to be here, really, thanks.

    - Lucas

    October 29th, 2010

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