Yesterday, a woman told me I reminded her of Ben Kingsley. That’s kind of fun. A while back I was told I reminded someone of Matt Serra. That’s kind of fun too. But other than height and hairstyle – cropped or shaved – there’s not much connection or much in common. At best, I have Mr. Serra’s acting ability and Mr. Kingsley’s mixed martial arts skills (if only it were the other way around!).
I always find it interesting to hear which celebrities people are told they look like. The associations are always positive. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Hey, you remind me of that actor I hate. Dude can’t act and he’s supposed to be a real jerk.” But maybe the focus on celebrities we like has more to do with being polite and avoiding conflict than it does with having only positive bias. We tend to not voice our negative biases directly to the person. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist though.
Out in the real world, we are strongly affected by both positive and negative bias. There are people we like and those we dislike within seconds of meeting. Sometimes it’s obvious why, but usually it’s just a feeling. Generally, there are four big factors at play:
1) We humans like to divide the world into “us” and “them”;
2) We humans like people who are like “us” (or at least we give them serious benefit of the doubt);
3) We humans make assumptions based on past experiences with people like “them” (or at least people we think are similar to them); and
4) We humans like to believe we are fully, wholly, 100% rational and we don’t have these biases (other people do, sure, but not us).
In the silly extreme, these biases are causing you to hire me for acting roles. It’s making you think I’d excel in the caged octagon. You’re making decisions about me and the future of your company because I remind you of someone you like, someone who is good at those things.
The cosmic joke’s on all of us and it’s hurting results. It’s destroying creativity and innovation. It’s perpetuating the stagnation and silos. It’s keeping people in roles they aren’t good at and keeping others out of roles where they’d excel. It’s shutting down new ideas, improvements, and progress. It’s destroying the potential for productive conflict and driving away those who would do better. It’s creating a culture of sameness and mediocrity where everyone fits in and no one stands out.
And that’s not good enough. What’s the business case for ensuring diversity (of thought, perspective, experience, skill, ability, demographics, etc.)? What’s the need for rigorous selection systems and ongoing interviewing training? What’s the reason for continuously developing managers? Us vs them is the psychology of surviving.
We need the psychology of thriving.