After Jonathan’s fantastic motivational keynote at the Assist Conference I was keen for him to share his knowledge and experience. Here is his take on how unconscious bias can mean you miss out on the best personal and professional relationships.
As a PA you are constantly meeting new people and how you connect with them is fundamental to your professional role. However, did you know that there are various things about a person that may unconsciously affect your perception of them?
It was September 1990 and I was on a train on the way to my first day at university here in my home town of Brighton, England. The late summer heat made the carriage stuffy and uncomfortably hot, whilst the fact it was the first day of term meant it was overcrowded too, meaning that I, as well as hundreds of others, were forced to stand for the 20 minutes journey to the campus.
There were literally tens of thousands of students around that day and yet I vividly remember noticing an unassuming man of about 30 amongst the noisy crowds staring out of the window. Incredibly, I saw him again about 90 minutes later as we registered for our classes as, against all odds, we would be spending the next 3 years together as we were on the same course. Although a nervous 18 year old I was keen to make friends and tried to make polite conversation, but aside from learning that is name was Alan, he seemed distant and not interested in interacting. Or to put it another way – and as Alan himself would later explain – the issue was quite simple: he just didn’t like me!
Now, his attitude towards me was something that I couldn’t control and I am sure there have been plenty of others who have felt, and still feel, the same way. One of life’s great experiences is meeting people with different characters and personalities and, as we do so, we obviously tend to bond more with some people than others. However, it took me over a year to find the reason behind the aloof and uninterested attitude Alan had towards me and when I did I stood there open-mouthed.
The reason was my fashion sense (or the lack of it!)
I’ve never considered myself a big follower of fashion and obviously, as many of you may recall, the early 1990’s wasn’t the pinnacle of trendy designer wear, especially if you were a tall, ungainly lad like me. It transpired that Alan had taken one look at my double denim outfit (which, although seems to be very much in vogue these days was, back then, apparently, a fashion faux pas!) and decided that I was obviously a very un-cool teenager, wanted nothing to do with me and essentially ignored me for almost a year.
It was only in June 1991 when we were placed on a work experience project together in London that he seemed to interact a bit more and we began to share a drink, introduce each other to our respective girlfriends and regularly head out as a foursome.
So, what was going on? Well, I believe there was some science behind it, it’s referred to as ‘unconscious bias’ and it’s something I encourage you to become more ‘conscious’ of. Essentially the theory is that our life experiences, beliefs, culture and expectation can affect our perceptions, decisions, and interactions – we can become biased (both positively and negatively) towards people, situations and events simply based on previous experiences. For example, if your best friend connects you with another person, psychology suggests that you will have an unconscious bias towards (in favour) of that person. On the other hand, if you know you are going to meet a family member of someone you really don’t really like you may be biased against them as, unconsciously, you may expect not to like them. (Expectations are very powerful as I’ll cover them another time).
My insight is therefore to be aware of unconscious bias – especially negative bias – in social situations. People deserve being judged on their merit and your unconscious assumptions could have a damaging effect on relationships that in fact could be amongst the most important of your lives.
And this latter point was certainly the case with me as for the last 25 years Alan has become one of my closest friends. Those first months of disconnection were soon left behind as, over the years, we’ve travelled the world, drunk in more bars than I can remember (or is probably healthy) and supported each other as life’s inevitable ups and downs come and go.
It’s poignant that, as I type, Alan enters his 5 month in hospital following a stroke in September. I’m proud to be amongst his large group of friends who are supporting him as he learns to walk again and I can’t help but think what nearly derailed this great friendship before it started. Double Denim!
About the Author
Jonathan Bradshaw researches, speaks, writes and trains on the fascinating psychology behind exceptional interpersonal communication. He is CEO of the Meetology® Lab and leads the company’s team of behavioural psychologists in collating research on social interaction. As an experienced and engaging keynote speaker, Jon has presented at conferences and business events in over 30 countries and is an award-winning columnist and blogger. Learn more at www.meetology.com or via Twitter @Meetology.