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  • Tamar Balkin

Can It Ever Be Useful To Judge A Book By Its Cover ?

“Yeah, 'cause you can't judge a book by it's cover Only time it's gonna show, only time will let us know"

You Cant Judge A Book By It's Cover by Stevie Wonder (click here for the song)

Social psychologists have found that typically we do make judgements based on first impressions, in fact something as innocuous as the firmness of your handshake will influence other’s views of you. The media uses stereotypes for eye catching headlines and ‘click bait’. Given that our brains can only store limited amounts of information in short term memory, perhaps it is simply ‘convenient’ to put people into simplistic unsubstantiated categories.

My individual differences lecturer was fond of reminding us that whilst the the scientific process is rigorous, researchers also use categories. Regular readers will be aware to be mindful that the raw data, prior to being analysed statistically, actually represents distinct individuals.

The tension between being unique and belonging exists in our realities as well as the world of the research. Marilyn Brewer studied these two fundamental and competing human needs: the need for inclusion; and the need for differentiation. She proposed that an individual could be categorised along a social distinctiveness-inclusiveness dimension that ranges from uniqueness at the one extreme to total submersion at the other extreme. A person that strongly stands out from others in a group would thus experience a feeling of low inclusion, perhaps even resulting in a threatened sense of security. At the other extreme, a person who appears very similar to others on most criteria would experience a feeling of high inclusion, perhaps even resulting in a threatened sense of self-worth. According to the model, optimal distinctiveness is achieved through identification with groups that have a level of inclusiveness where the degrees of competing needs activation are exactly equal.

So to really embrace diversity we have to work at both the group and the individual level. We need to embrace our own diversity and acknowledge that uniqueness is an essential element of creativity and innovation. When we begin to realise that it is the differences between people that brings a richness to our existence and our problem solving, then diversity and inclusion becomes essential.

Given this natural tendency to categorise people incorrectly, what can we influence?

I have a client who is starting a new job in a new firm in the next month. During coaching this morning he decided that he wanted to convey the following attributes when he meets his boss, colleagues, direct reports and stakeholders:

  • Genuine curiosity

  • Unconditional positive regard

  • Genuine interest

  • Mindset that there are multiple perspectives to any situation

  • Kindness

  • Manners

In my opinion, in the same way that we think about our physical appearance before meeting someone for the first time, take a moment and think about the impression you want to convey.

What about conflict and the messiness of workplace interactions?

What I find most interesting in society as a whole are the assumptions that are made about majority groups. Often when inequity occurs, our natural tendency is to think poorly of all members of a particular group. Researchers have found that when you legitimise the views of everyone in the room, it is possible to recognise that even in so called ‘privileged groups’ people may be marginalised and conversely amongst ‘marginalised groups’ there is privilege. Thus perhaps, before we make assumptions, it is more useful to take the time to curiously understand the unique behaviours and motivations each individual, before choosing a course of action.

In an effort to understand diversity Martin Davidson is researching the people who are identified by a team as "weird" of different by attributes that are independent of race, gender, or physicality. He has found that these outliers mirror the experience of people who are traditionally marginalised, however despite being seen as different, it is widely acknowledged that they add enormous value to the organisation. He found that because these people have strong sense of purpose aligned to a larger goal, they are able to thrive and cope despite the way they are treated. He cautions that this finding should not be used as an excuse for marginalisation. Inevitably when there is difference of any sort in an organisation there will be deep conflict, yet each when each individual seeks commonality of purpose, the conversation can begin to transform to polite constructive debate.

“It is the people on the margin, the ones who are a little different, who don’t seem to fit, and who frequently have the new idea or the unexpected input that helps us see what we are trying to do in a better way. As we know, this can be tremendously helpful when strategizing, problem solving, brainstorming and executing. Those who we wouldn’t normally engage are, often times, the real untapped resource. It’s great to have the comfort of working with people who are similar to you, but there are tremendous benefits in working with people who are different in important ways.”

Martin Davidson

Professionally I delight in working with individuals to help them explore how their unique strengths and perspectives on the world can enhance their own leadership capability and wellbeing and improve the working lives of others.

Yesterday a client said to me “Thank you for reminding me that I can trust people, because my co- worker is so troublesome, I had put everyone into that category. Having an open mind about those I work with has enabled me to move through a difficult time and has made me excited about how I can lead my team by example to be engaged and excited about our very important work.”


References: Shore, L.M., Randel, A.E., Chung, B.G., Dean, M.A., Holcombe Ehrhart, K. and Singh, G. (2010). Inclusion and Diversity in Work Groups: A Review and Model for Future Research. Journal of Management, 37(4), pp.1262–1289. Leonardelli, G.J., Pickett, C.L. and Brewer, M.B. (2010). Optimal Distinctiveness Theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, pp.63–113 Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: on being the same and different at the same time. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475–482 Chaplin, W. F., Phillips, J. B., Brown, J. D., Clanton, N. R., & Stein, J. L. (2000). Handshaking, gender, personality, and first impressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(1), 110–117.

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