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Guerrillas in Your Midst

January 5, 2004

Gretchen, marketing director at a large U.S.-based pharmaceutical company, listened as the new Cambodian supervisor explained his design idea. She then nodded respectfully and said she’d think about it. But she returned to her desk with little understanding of what the man had said. "Saru’s accent was so heavy I just gave up," Gretchen recalls. "I’m sure that his ideas were fine. I didn’t want to discourage him, so I gave him permission to go ahead with the project."

    Poor Gretchen. She thinks of herself as a "nice" person who would never harbor a bias against anyone. Trouble is, she and other well-intentioned managers are, in fact, carriers of a particularly dangerous strain of prejudice I call "guerrilla bias."

    The guerrilla bias is a dangerous prejudice for two reasons. First, like the warrior who hides behind lush foliage, guerrilla bias is concealed behind good intentions, kind words and even thoughtful acts. Second, it is based on the perverse premise that all women, emerging groups (previously called "minorities"), people with disabilities and those who are outside the so-called "majority" population are to some degree fragile, quick to explode or in need of special treatment.

    The behavior is manifested in ways such as reluctance to coach a female employee for fear of hurting her feelings, or excessive accommodation for cultural differences such as varying standards of punctuality. There are many examples of the bias interfering with effectiveness in the workplace. Gretchen’s decision not to confront Saru about his communication skills is one. At issue is her inability or unwillingness to honestly discuss the problem or to provide effective coaching.

    How often do managers fail to tell the truth to members of emerging groups for fear of hurting their feelings, getting slapped with a lawsuit or being labeled prejudiced? All of these feelings are based on the underlying premise of guerrilla bias: that members of emerging groups just don’t have what it takes to hear the truth. The result is an employee who is never taught how to excel at the job and, therefore, isn’t able to move up in the organization.

    A woman once approached me after a diversity workshop. She was utterly confused about how to handle what seemed to be a straightforward management issue. Her confusion surprised me because she had appeared so bright and experienced during the workshop. The conversation went something like this:

    "I just don’t know what to do. I have several Native American employees who are late to work every day. I know they all have reliable transportation, so there’s really no reason for them to be so lax. All I can figure out is that it must have to do with their culture, so I decided to give them some leeway and let them come in anytime up to half an hour after everybody else. Now my problem is that the other employees are complaining and want the same flexibility. In my industry, that just isn’t going to work. What do I do now?"

    My response to this woman was simple. "Why? Why would you allow the Native Americans to come in late when everybody else isn’t granted the same privilege?" She repeated her thought that maybe there was a cultural reason that members of this particular ethnic group couldn’t grasp the notion of punctuality. After I had talked with her for a while, it became clear that cultural differences were not the problem, her bias was. She was another "nice" person guilty of guerrilla bias. She made an assumption that members of emerging groups have needs so special that they have to be given certain privileges. In this case, her attitude harmed her ability to build harmonious teams. It demeaned the Native Americans by implying that they were not able to measure up to the same standard as other employees. It diminished productivity by throwing off the early-morning work schedule. And it created tension among team members and, she says, caused the non-Native Americans to look down on their colleagues.

    If the manager had kept her bias in check and held all her employees to the same high standard of punctuality, the pernicious problem might never have occurred. Reasonable and respectful accommodation of cultural differences is a hallmark of a high-functioning, diverse workplace. Bending over backwards, however, is not only personally insulting, it’s also a real team-building killer. All biases are nothing more than what I call habits of thought. Like any habit, when it is identified, it can be broken. Fortunately, identifying our biases is fairly easy. Asking yourself the following questions may help:

    Do certain assumptions pop into your mind when you encounter someone from an emerging group? What are those assumptions? Some of those just might be your biases.

    When you think about certain cultural or racial groups that are different from your own, do you think more about how these groups are different from yours or about what you have in common? What kinds of differences do you focus on?

    Do you feel uncomfortable when coaching an employee who is of a different culture? What is the source of that discomfort? Can you think of any specific groups that make you particularly uncomfortable?

    Give the answers to these questions some thought. Once you identify and face your bias, you will be better able to recognize it and to develop the habit of shoving it aside when it comes to mind. The result of the effort is that you will be better able to get on with the business of valuing all employees and hold them all to the same high standard of excellence.

Workforce Management, January 2004, pp. 18-19 -- Subscribe Now!