Stereotypes, Distrust, and Bias

Dear David,

I am a middle manager and have a boss who doesn’t trust one of my employees and—by extension—he doesn’t trust me. My employee has sensed the distrust. Even though this employee meets expectations, does a good job, and is liked by everyone else, my boss seems to dislike her demeanor. I am working with the employee on changing her demeanor, but it is brutal on morale. Any tips for improving morale without undermining my boss?

Manager in Distress

Dear Manager in Distress,

Thanks for a truly intriguing question. It contains the kind of messy complications that make people and workplaces so interesting.

List and Prioritize Your Concerns. With complicated issues like this one, I begin by listing the different concerns. The list helps me identify the concerns that are most central.
Here is my initial list.

• Your boss doesn’t trust this employee.
• Your boss is beginning to wonder if he can trust you.
• Your boss’s opinions might (or might not) be based on stereotypes or implicit bias.
• The employee performs well on the job.
• The employee senses the distrust.
• You wonder if you SHOULD get the employee to change (or would this be buying into your boss’s biases?).
• You wonder if you CAN get the employee to change (how can you coach about subtle issues related to demeanor?).
• You wonder whether, if the employee does change, your boss will notice and reward the changes.

It looks as if the highest-priority question to answer is whether your manager’s mistrust of this employee is merited. The way you answer this question will determine how you act on most of the other issues. If you decide that your manager’s concerns are merited, then your challenge is to coach your employee to change. If you decide his concerns are not merited, then your challenge is to influence him. Of course, the answer isn’t always clear-cut. But I would begin by examining your manager’s concerns.

Explore Others’ Paths. Your manager is telling himself a story. His story is that your employee’s behavior fits a pattern that indicates she can’t be trusted. You need to create a safe way for your manager to examine his story. Safety is very important here. Don’t lecture your manager on the need to avoid bias, and don’t argue for your own perspective. Instead, ask questions that help your manager explore his own point of view.

Focus on the Facts. Ask questions about what your manager has observed and what he had expected. Look for the gap. Get examples of what your manager means by “the employee’s demeanor.” We all attend to people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and other nonverbal cues to try to read what they are thinking and feeling. Ask your manager about what he has seen, and what it means to him.

Example: Suppose you ask your manager for examples of what he has seen, and he replies, “In meetings and in presentations her demeanor is weak, hesitant, and unsure. She pauses, questions her own conclusions, and allows others to push her around—instead of making firm recommendations and backing them up with facts.”

Check to see if you and your manager have seen the same behaviors, and whether the behaviors are representative of the employee.

Examine the Story. Encourage your manager to explore the logic of his story—to re-examine the conclusions drawn from the facts. For example, is your manager concluding that your employee doesn’t prepare adequately, that she is too easily intimidated, or that she is too indecisive? Ideally, you will help your manager ask two questions: a.) Do I really have enough facts to draw this negative conclusion? b) Is there another more positive conclusion that fits the facts?

Visibility and Exposure. When you’re talking with your manager, the goal isn’t to convert him to your point of view. It’s to get him to reconsider his initial views, and to be open to new information. However, this new information can’t come from you; it must come from the employee. What you can do is provide the employee with visibility and exposure—opportunities to prove herself in ways that overcome your manager’s concerns.

Own the Problem. If you agree with your manager that the employee needs to change, then make sure you own it. Don’t blame the need to change on your manager. Use natural consequences to explain the links between the employee’s actions and outcomes she cares about. She needs to understand the business reasons for changing, or she may attribute it to whim or bias.

Focus on the Facts. The more specific you are, the more helpful you will be. The ideal would be to show your employee a video of herself in action, and to go through it frame by frame. If you don’t have video, then use quotes and demonstrations, not just explanations to show her what she does right and wrong. Imagine you are coaching an actor to improve her performance of a part. The focus isn’t on her words or the content of what she is saying as much as it’s on her nonverbals.

Follow Up. Ask your employee for permission to cue her in real time. Most of the actions that create “demeanor” are automatic or even unconscious. She won’t know she’s demonstrating them, unless you can signal her.

I hope this is helpful,