O’s Success Tips: Do Not Judge

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This was the interview that was going to redefine my work career. I had worked several summer internships as a plant inspector and I disliked it. I wanted to do something more exciting, a dynamic position that utilized my creativity. I voiced my desire to my manager, who suggested a project engineering role to me.

As a project engineer I would have the unique opportunity to solve real-time plant problems in a fast-paced environment. I was excited at this prospect and eagerly applied for the position. An interview was set up for the following week. To prepare, I consulted with several experienced project engineers to determine the interview expectations. Their answers were diverse, but they all converged on one point “technical skills.” That was the defining factor that separated project engineers from all other engineers. I began scouring through numerous catalogues and product sheets on the various plant equipment. After 7 long days of preparation, marked by overnight studying, I was ready. Armed with an impressive college GPA and strong references from my current manager I was certain that the job was simply a technical question away…

I arrived at the interview site confident and ready. I was warmly welcomed by a gentleman in his early 40’s. He had an Eastern European accent and bore a confident grin that signified experience and knowledge. The interview began with the usual “what do you enjoy doing?” and “what are your weaknesses?” behavioral type questions. I answered each question with aplomb as I eagerly awaited the technical question onslaught. But it never came seconds gave way to minutes and finally hours, but still no technical question. He was either greatly interested in my answers or was about to offer me a job on the spot. My wandering thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a warm handshake and smile. Immediately my doubts melted away, that was a smile that signified acceptance. I was ecstatic…

Several days passed and yet I heard nothing about my interview. I had sent the customary “thank-you-for-interviewing-me letter” and even inquired directly with the project engineer’s administrator. But each time I got the same answer “they are still making up their minds.” It must have been a difficult decision for them to make because a whole month had passed and still there was no answer. As the days crept by, I slowly began to realize that I had not been selected for the position. Deep down I was angry, but my anger slowly gave way to curiosity. Why? “Why wasn’t I selected?” I began directing this same question to everyone, first to myself, and then to the administrator and eventually to the department head. Finally I got an answer in the form of 3 chilling words “no technical skills.” No technical skills? I had gone through the interview without being asked a single technical question, yet I was rejected for not having any technical skills. Immediately several words started racing through my mind; prejudice, discrimination, stereotype, finally settling on the most extreme conclusion…racism. Surely his decision had to do with my skin color…

In 2005 an interesting experiment was carried out at Dalhousie University (Journal of Neurophysiology, vol 95, p 887). The experiment involved 15 participants aged 18-30. The participants were made to lift two boxes a large one (9.9 cm3) weighing 0.325 kg and a small one (4.9 cm3) weighing 0.275 kg. In each instance, the participants were made to record their perceived weight of both boxes on a scale of 1 to 10; 1 being light and 10 being heavy. They were told to repeat this exercise at least twenty times and at the end of the day the data was analyzed. The result was fascinating; a vast majority of the participants incorrectly selected the smaller box as the heavier object. This was despite the fact that the larger box was clearly the heavier of the two. If the boxes were the same size the results would have been totally different and more accurate. Instead they were wrong; it was as if the outer perception of size had overridden the inner and more accurate perception of weight. It is easy to see their confusion. Typically, large boxes are used to package heavy objects and small boxes light objects. Thus, when we encounter a large box that isn’t heavy, we incorrectly perceive it as lighter than it really is. This same tenet guides our perception of a small box that isn’t light. In other words, the participants had based their weight judgment not on the actual weight of the boxes but on the sizes of the boxes and past visual experience.

When I heard the words “no technical skills” I immediately felt like a large box constructed from the media perception of what black was. A box incorrectly judged by its outer characteristics, rather than its inner traits. I felt discriminated against!

A few months after the interview, I found myself in a relatively tight spot. I urgently needed to rent out my current house or face the reality of a double mortgage. I had listed an ad in the Green Sheets Classifieds and within a few days, I had received over fifty phone calls from prospective tenants. I was searching for the perfect tenant, one that could simultaneously pay their bills on time and take care of the property. My search narrowed down to one applicant, a Hispanic lady in her mid 30’s. For some odd reason I was drawn to the applicant. In my mind, she seemed like the ideal applicant. She fit the visual mould of what I expected an ideal tenant to look like. She was dressed professionally and wore a resplendent smile. The next step was the lease application analysis. This was the final filter needed to approve a tenant. I began running the usual checks, starting with the background and then the credit history. Everything was spotless as I expected. But then the cracks began appearing when I pulled her rental history. I found her to be consistently late on her payments and on several occasions she registered non-payments. This was the classic real-estate red flag. A flag that was somehow overshadowed by my initial “perfect tenant” perception. Against logic, I went ahead and accepted her application. The only requirement was that she paid the required security deposit. Days turned into weeks, but yet I still had not received the deposit, only a continuous stream of excuses.

As I sat down one evening lamenting my precarious situation, I heard a knock at my door. It was an African American couple in their early 60’s. The gentleman was a bit older and walked with a limp, while his wife flashed a full smile punctuated by 3 gold teeth. Immediately several stereotypes ran through my mind and in less than 10 seconds, I had made a decision. These people didn’t cut it. My decision was further cemented when I learnt the couple were victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I had heard all the horror stories of New Orleans tenants. They left one’s house thrashed and rarely made their rent payments on time. Even a close friend of mine had had a none too gratifying experience, when his rental property was turn inside out by New Orleans tenants. I reluctantly handed over the lease application and informed them that I needed it to be completed by the following morning. Before I left for work the next day I was greeted by the same golden smile along with a completed lease application and application fee. Everything on the lease checked out. Their credit was good and their background was clean. Even though they received supplemental help from the government they still had more than enough money to make the house rent. With time running out and my “perfect” tenant all but invisible, I decided to accept their application.

Two years has passed since that fateful moment and I am yet to receive a late payment from the couple. The house looks better than it ever did and I never get nagging phone calls. I found the perfect tenants, but more importantly I learnt an invaluable lesson. I had treated the couple in the same superficial manner I was treated in my interview. Placing them in a box and judging them based on their outward appearance. I had reverse-discriminated. I felt helpless. “Could this be attributed to human nature?”

I found my answer in a separate but equally astonishing experiment conducted by J. Randall Flanagan of Queens University in Canada (Current Biology, vol 18, p 1742). This was similar to the Dalhousie University experiment, except this time the boxes weights were adjusted progressively. The larger the box, the lighter the weight put in it. After several days of adjusting and readjusting the weights, it was found that the initial size-weight illusion experienced in the previous experiment had been completely reversed. Unlike the previous experiment where the weights were almost similar, Flanagan created a distinct but gradual separation in the weights. This distinction in weight was able to move the participants minds away from the outer size of the boxes and towards the true inner weight of the boxes. Thus showing that human acts of unintentional discrimination can be reversed by deliberate and conscious efforts.

However, the impetus for change has to come from within, so that our daily encounters are not merely avenues for snap visual judgments but rather opportunities to fully appreciate the core inner values of every individual.

Okechukwu Ofili
Africa’s #1 Success Coach
Copyright © 2008 Ofili Speaks, Inc. All rights reserved

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