Thursday, August 14, 2014

Biases are lazy

Shopping cart photo, from Wikimedia Commons

I stood watch a few nights ago with a young lady and we chatted about, among other things, shopping.  At some point she brought up that she loves going into grocery stores and checking out the "new items" aisle, which I was curious about since I didn't really remember seeing this aisle before.  Her response to me was "Well, you probably don't do much of the grocery shopping in your family."

Which, honestly, was a bit insulting, although I held my tongue and took it in stride.  

While it may be true that most men don't do the grocery shopping for their family, that is not the case for me.  My wife plans meals for the week, breaks each down into ingredients and then types up the grocery list, broken down by aisle.  I normally do the shopping, since it's quick for me and with a good list I am in and out in 30 minutes, while she would have to drag around three small children.  For me, I don't mind the shopping, since I ensure I get the food I want to eat.  It's a win-win in our family.

Other families divide up responsibilities differently, and I know one where the wife is the one that does the outside work while the husband cooks.  In that case, the husband is a fantastic cook and spends a lot of time at his normal job, so it's just not feasible for him to mow the lawn, or at least not if one wants dinner before the sun goes down.  He would probably be pretty insulted if a mother of two told him "You just don't understand how hard it is to cook dinner on time."

The same holds true for just about any other job out there.  I've met people from all genders and races that constantly break the norm of what you would expect.  One in particular was a young E-4 who I was surprised to learn already had her masters degree and had worked in her field for a few years before enlisting in the Navy.  To top it off, she was even older than me by a year, and yet she worked for me!  She ended up being one of my best Sailors.

Biases happen.  We grow up and learn the world a certain way.  Biases are a way of quickly distilling information and making decisions.  It's a form of trend analysis.  If we understand this, biases can help us quickly sift through information and make decisions.  But if we don't keep tabs on them, biases close off opportunities for human relationships.  

This is VERY common in mentoring programs.  When I ran the training department, I had a female officer spend a lot of time at my office hours with me going over everything from record review to how to work out kinks in her division.  At one point, I asked her if she had asked her mentor about these issues, which she replied "Well yes, but she's a bit removed from being a DIVO."  Turns out her mentor was a female O-4 about to retire, a terrible match for an O-1 brand new to the Navy...but a match made because they both happen to be female.  Funny enough, I was matched with that same female O-4, but she was the perfect mentor for me, because she was about two tours ahead of me and could give me great advice on how to proceed forward in my career.

Purposely choosing anything based on race is a race to the bottom.  As you can see below from a Navy CMEO training, we happen to have a convenient pairing of race, gender and rank, but is that going to happen in real life?  The training enforces the stupid thinking that resulted in the female officer in my previous example getting paired with exactly the wrong mentor when perhaps a younger male officer would have proven more effective.

While the CMEO may have good intentions, scaring people into worrying about offending others is also completely counterproductive.  Normally this is done by telling people to not bring up race/gender/whatever because it may offend the person, without having actually asked the person in question.  We then become hypersensitive and don't bring up any meaningful conversation while losing an opportunity to learn.  

Earlier this year my wife and I had a young E-6 and her family over for dinner.  She had just picked up an LDO commission, so we chatted a lot about what the changes were and how to succeed.  We each taught each other something that night by actually having frank discussion:

- Her husband runs a daddy day care, and unlike the terrible movie it's really a well run place.  He's extremely professional, but we talked about how there are a bunch of people who judged him at first because he was a guy running a day care.

- The new LDO asked my wife "So now that I'm an officer, am I expected to own a new car?"  Dead serious.  My wife and I almost laughed, but then I realized that most ensigns that she has seen drive new cars because they bought one upon commissioning.  My wife told her she could keep her vehicle.

By far, that was one of the best dinner conversations I've had.  Thoroughly enjoyed her company, and in the end I was glad we asked the questions that we did.

If you let them, biases make you lazy.  Biases keep you from asking hard questions.  They let you sit in a comfort zone.  They prevent conversation and the flow of new ideas.  And on the same token, over the top reaction to supposed biases is extremely destructive.  It's most likely laziness on the part of the person desiring to not offend someone.  The desire to somehow divide the world into little convenient boxes where gender, race, and other information is used to classify us is terribly degrading in the end and does not recognize that as human beings our nature is not constrained by our anatomy.  Taken only a bit farther, this is racism/sexism that both denies the person being segmented from standing on their own merits while preventing others from learning about how other people live and work.

Challenge your biases every day.  Talk to that officer you think is kind of a dick, you might find out he's a really nice guy and can teach you something.  Take a mentor based on what kind of advice that person can give, not by their chromosomes or pigment color.  Sit down with the folks that you think are dorks, or do things differently, or maybe rub people the wrong way.  Chances are you'll be surprised by the results, and it'll make you a better leader (and a better person) in the end.