We’re All Prejudiced

We are social animals, we humans.  We survive by associating with our tribe and distancing ourselves from not-our-tribe.  It’s deeply wired in.  No matter how much we want to, there is no known way to completely eliminate our tendency to prize the characteristics common to our in-group, whether that’s our gender, race, sexual orientation, favorite ball team, or fill-in-the-blank-here.

This pattern of in-group and out-group related beliefs and behaviors is what we commonly call prejudice.  Even though it’s not socially acceptable to admit being prejudiced, there it is.  A robust pattern that is super hard, if not completely impossible, to eliminate in people.

[pullquote align=”normal”]”The human mind must think with the aid of categories… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”

Gordon Allport [/pullquote]

So we know that human prejudice is a real and pervasive thing. It exists because it is adaptive to survival of the human species. These days, in business, it’s not quite so adaptive. Yuck. What does this mean for you, in the running of your business?

First, a note about the messiness of dealing with people in business. Business organizations are complex.  They are made up of people. These people– all people– are both rational and irrational all at once. These truths make it really super hard to make organizational decisions that work pretty much the way we hope they will.  The best way I can find to do this is through a process I’ll call principle-based decision making, which I’ll describe and then demonstrate.

What is principle-based decision making?

This is a method for making choices based on stated principles and beliefs.  This helps you minimize the zig-zag pull of solutions chasing consequences of the last solution. Without principles, the inclination is to simply move away from the last decision’s negative outcomes.  Doesn’t matter which direction.  Just away.  Who knows where you’ll end up?  With principle-based decision making, your principles give you a North Star.

So what do you do? You start by stating your beliefs about how things should work and what you won’t compromise on.  Your beliefs and assumptions about what is right in general and what’s wrong.  How you believe things work.  What matters most.  These principles are what you measure your big  decisions against. When you are vetting possible solutions to a problem, you first test the solution against your principles.  If there’s a miss, that solution is a non-starter.

Let me illustrate.

I have three principles that I use to guide big decisions in growth businesses in light of our awareness that humans are prejudiced, which I list below. They may not apply to society at wide or other cooperative bodies that have different charters than for-profit growth businesses.  Societal policy is not my expertise.  I also retain the right to adjust my principles as I live more and learn more about how the world works. Or, if my sense of the evidence directs, I’ll hold firm.

Having said all that, here’s what I believe.

Principle 1: Having diversity is good for your business. 

This point has been hammered a whole bunch already, but I will say this.  If your team members look pretty homogeneous (i.e., not diverse), you will happily find communication easier and people are more likely to get along. Which is great.  BUT you will have blind spots.  AND these blind spots will eventually trip you up.

I’m going to say that again.  These blind spots WILL eventually trip you up.

This is why we espouse bringing diversity into our businesses. While it warms our cockles to see a visibly rainbowed human mosaic at our behest, it is the multiplicity of thought that comes with this diversity that’s the real winner. With multiplicity of thought, you have a greater chance of noticing when something unexpected shifts in your business’ landscape.  With multiplicity of thought, you are better able to devise a good response.  With multiplicity of thought, you can respond promptly before the pain gets too intense.


We know this. Business leaders know this.  You know this.  This is why businesses often have diversity goals, diversity talent acquisition strategies, and, sometimes, we create positions that are accountable for encouraging and building said diversity.  It’s good stuff, right?

More on that later.

Principle 2: Focus energy on what binds us together.

Highlighting a common purpose and identity focuses energy and group cohesiveness. All other things being equal, this is better than highlighting non-productive differences.

A higher order purpose and shared identity can bond diverse groups together toward a common goal.  This commonly happens in times of great tragedy.  Sometimes it happens in businesses with a strong culture and a dramatic, compelling shared goal.  As soon as the drama fades, though, a different kind of drama emerges and it’s rarely one that advances the health and growth of the business.

Because we humans are…human. Bummer.

It’s human nature for people to first figure out who’s-in-my-group.  Because who’s-in-my-group is who-I-can-trust. Who-I-can-trust is who I will work with most cooperatively and effectively.  I’m not just talking about categories traditionally associated with diversity initiatives.  I’m also talking about every conceivable category of humans that might exist across your business.  Management vs. non-management.  Functional groupings.  Remote employees vs. local.  Tenured vs. newbies.  And, yes, every category based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, etc.

Sometimes, it’s useful to highlight whatever-category-we’re-using because it helps the business grow and serve customers.  It helps us know our roles and accountabilities more clearly.  When it comes to the type of categories we think of when we speak about diversity, highlighting those groupings is less useful to the business.

What helps us all pay more attention to what we have in common, is re-affirming again and again the group’s shared purpose and shared identity.  It helps us focus on what WE are doing together.

Principle 3: Design with human nature in mind. 

Human nature has many adaptive-yet-inconvenient vagaries, of which prejudice is one.  Sometimes, we might even moralize the sheer presence of adaptive-yet-inconvenient natural patterns that we wish weren’t so. It comes from a good place—a place of hope and improvement of the human race. It also comes from a place of hubris—hubris that our human-made rules can bend human nature to our will.

Well, here’s the deal.

If you set a policy that requires a complete absence of fill-in-your-adaptive-yet-inconvenient-natural-human-pattern-here, then it won’t really work.  It may seem to work. Kind of for a while. In the longer run, you are destined to have unexpected consequences.  Sometimes, sadly, subversive consequences.

But there’s an alternative. We can design with human nature in mind. What does this look like?

First, we acknowledge what can’t be changed about human nature. Next, we find ways to design systems that encourage a re-vectoring of outcomes more in line with what we’re hoping for.  Then we continuously improve based on what we learn works and what doesn’t work. We relax the need to adhere to rigid ideals.  We view human nature as a constant that we can work with.  Not something we can fundamentally change.

The day we stop employing human beings is the day that it serves us to ignore human nature.  Perhaps that day will come, but it’s not today.

Next steps for principle-based decision making.

I have now stated my three principles: having diversity is good for your business, we focus energy on what binds us together, and we design with human nature in mind.  Weren’t we talking about people being prejudiced being an uncomfortable truth originally and what businesses really ought to do about that? Was this tangent about principles really necessary? Yes. And YES!

Great ideas come from anywhere.  Most ideas come from a sincere motivation to make something better.  Some ideas contradict one another.  How do we choose?  For each idea, we refer back to the principles.  Any idea that is contrary to any one principle is a non-starter, no matter how well intentioned or otherwise redeeming it may be.  By specifying our guiding principles, we can all see what we are basing our decisions on.

Here are some examples to illustrate.

Example One: diversity-targeted talent sourcing

A small, high-growth business, and likely your business, finds a majority of its talent through referrals.  Which is an awesome way to find proven talent that fits your culture. Because people tend to hang out most with other people more like them, a reliance on referrals can result in your team looking pretty darned non-diverse.

Unless your initial group is diverse to start with, which can happen.  I’m not sure how frequently.  All I know is that I don’t see it that often. So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re a growing startup and you might want to find ways to expand your diversity.  How to do that in a way that is consistent with the three principles?

I’m a fan of increasing the reach of recruiting outreach efforts that deliberately tap into sources of talent that looks different from what you have now.  This puts more and different kinds of talent at the top of your recruiting conversion funnel.  This also means relying a little less on referrals as a % of total hires.

The choosing practices should be equitable and as blind to differences between people-type categories as is conceivably possible. Without question. There are lots of interesting tools and services to help achieve greater objectivity than our prejudiced natures can achieve on our own.

Now to test the proposed solution against the three principles.

  • Principle 1: Having diversity is good for your business.
    Check! Result should be to improve team diversity.
  • Principle 2: Focus energy on what binds us together.
    Check! Consistent expectations enhance cohesion.
  • Principle 3: Design with human nature in mind.
    Check! Use tech and defined selection processes to reduce impact of inevitable biases. 

This idea passes the principles test.

Example Two: quotas and affirmative action. 

When it comes to affirmative action, I’m not expert enough to say whether this is a good national policy or not.  It’s hotly debated by many experts on both sides of that argument.  Keep me out of that please.  Here, I’m talking about quotas and affirmative action policies set and in use by businesses.

The use of quotas and affirmative action for under-represented populations comes from an honorable intent.  Quotas and affirmative action are, in effect, reparations that benefit explicitly defined and previously disadvantaged groups of people. For example, you might notice that you don’t have as many female software developers as you hoped you would.  To address this, you would set a quota of having a certain percent of software developers be female by a certain point in time.  The tactics you might use to fulfill that quota are wide and varying.  The point, here, is that the goal is the quota.  Lots of things can be justified to meet a well-intentioned goal.  Some quite helpful and some not so much.

In addition to the risks that come with focusing on a number as the primary goal, I do want to point out another downside of affirmative action for businesses that count on their teams working together well. Quotas and affirmative action clearly point out the dividing lines between categories of people in a fairly visible way.  Even if this is “only seen by HR and managers”, doing this has a way of leaking out and creating divisiveness among the people in the business.

How so?

Any time you define categories of humans, what you imprint on everyone’s minds is that those are the categories that matter to the business. Whether the categorization actually advances the business or not—the clear message is that they matter. They matter because they influence who gets what, who used to get more, who gets more now, and what different expectations exist for each category.

Hear all that noise?  That’s entropy.  Distraction. That’s energy spent NOT advancing the business as a whole. Which is not useful.  And you can’t eradicate it.

Does this mean I’m opposed to Affirmative Action in every possible application?   Of course not. This is a complex issue with a wide range of firmly held beliefs about right and wrong. I am not an expert on societal policy and long-term remedies for previous inequities.  Perhaps you are.  I am talking about how we can best focus the organizational energy of your growth business toward cooperative efforts that build your business.

Does this mean that I’m clueless about the obligations government contractors have to categorize, count, and report on the employment actions for each and every protected class of employee?  I know the EEOC and OFCCP aren’t just there for looks.  Those are government bodies with teeth.  If you are a government contractor, then yes, you’d better abide by those requirements.  Beyond that, I suggest focusing your team on what binds you together.

Now let’s score quotas and affirmative action against our principles.

  • Principle 1: Having diversity is good for your business.
    Check! Yes!  Clearly designed to do that.
  • Principle 2: Focus energy on what binds us together.
    Uh oh.
  • Principle 3: Design with human nature in mind.
    Hmmm. Seems to expect some people to knowingly give up a little to benefit another group.  And like it.

So this one doesn’t pass the three principles test.  Fail.  Unless you are legally required to use quotas and affirmative action, which some businesses are.


So. To wrap up.

We are prejudiced, even (especially) those of us who believe we aren’t. It’s an uncomfortable truth. It’s important to think about this because diversity is good for business and human instinct left unchecked will steer your business in a different direction. All other things being equal, if you run your business with an understanding of and accommodation for human nature, you are ahead of the game.

It’s hard to do this well.  It’s worth the effort.

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