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Mary F. McDonald

Quality Insider

The Danger of Preconceptions

In a work context, prejudging often gets in the way of meaningful feedback

Published: Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 05:30

Every human being, over time, yearns to put his life in order—to have his expectations met, and to use filters to help him know how a situation will resolve itself. Consequently, we subconsciously strive to put new information into existing categories, based on previous patterns and preset concepts that have been formed during our lifetimes. Our preconceptions may be as innocuous as, “I’m going to watch this actor because she always stars in a romantic comedy, and I enjoy that genre,” or, “It’s the last week of the quarter, so we’re going to be pushed for sales this week; what can we bring in from next quarter, what can we expedite out the door?” or even, “My spouse is going to blow his top when I tell him I want to go away for the weekend with my pals.”

In a work context, preconceptions limit our ability to see what “reality” is, and therefore provide meaningful feedback to our organization about what needs to be addressed. The concepts of lean involve gemba, going to “the actual place” and jidoka, having “respect for people.” Yet, if we walk into an area and have preconceptions about it, or do not have respect for the people we are interacting with, then we thwart the very concept of improvement. We need to strive to be open to everyone we meet, and approach them as a student ready to learn, rather than as a know-it-all ready to criticize or find fault.

As part of a recent blog post, I wrote about two instances where a company’s “top gun” jumped to conclusions and lost his cool (escalating a situation with a contractor in one instance, and verbally attacking an employee in the other), rather than asking the other person to verify his understanding prior to reacting. In both cases this resulted in a large decrease in relations and morale. Preconceptions may start with an absolute in your mind—words like “always” and “never” are frequent tip-offs—because you have already made up your mind on what’s going to happen. If you find yourself saying, “You always…” or “You never…,” you may be acting from a position of preconception.

Our work preconceptions may be a reaction to how someone looks or acts, how an area looks, or how someone will respond. Let’s look at an example or two of each.

How someone looks or acts, part one

Several years ago I attended a backyard barbecue hosted by a co-worker. His wife had also invited folks whom she worked with, so I met several families for the first time. Some new acquaintances and I were sitting at the picnic table talking when their son came running up crying, saying the other kids were being mean to him. He was about 4½ feet tall and I was amazed that this apparent “elementary school kid” was crying and being such a “baby.” Only when his dad stood to comfort him did I realize that Dad was 6½ feet tall and therefore his son was probably tall for his age.

The boy’s mom informed me that her son wasn’t even 5 years old and that his height was a real burden at this early stage of life. It seems that everyone there had the same preconception as I did, with some saying, “He’s probably 8 years old and in second or third grade. I’d expect him to be more mature.” Because his dad had experienced the same things growing up, he was understanding and compassionate about his son’s difficulties.

In a work context, how often do we make an assumption based on someone’s assumed age? And do those assumptions color how we interact with her? If you think in terms of “young whippersnapper” or “old fogey,” you are probably working under an age preconception with all the attending characteristics, such as how deep or wide the whippersnapper’s experience base is, how well the fogey may use technology, or how either will approach crunch time.

How someone looks or acts, part two

Have you ever walked into an establishment and been greeted by someone with tattoos, piercings, or gages (the circular discs in earlobes that stretch them)? The first time you meet someone adorned this way, your preconceptions may kick in. You may automatically assume things about them—how they will speak, their level of education, or their level of helpfulness. But at the same time you may feel the need to stop lumping people into categories, judging them, and halt your preconceptions.

Tattoos are being worn by professionals in many different industries; the same goes for body piercing and gaging. In a particularly memorable conversation I had with a waitress several years ago, I asked if she would mind me inquiring about her piercings (tongue, eyebrow, nose—those were the ones I could see) and why she chose to get them. She lit up and explained her reasoning, where she was pierced, and why she chose those particular piercings. She then told me that I was “cool for asking permission to talk to her about it,” and confided that when someone was rude to her or made a derogatory comment, she was rude to them right back. (Glad I asked politely.)

In a work context, we may be making assumptions on how someone looks, dresses, adorns his body, or speaks, and that may affect how we think about or interact with them. I confess, when I first saw a picture of someone whose work I followed online, I was surprised at how young he was, and how big his ear gages were (indicating that he’s been stretching his lobes for a while). Based on his work, I had assumed he was older and, well, more mainstream. Gaging was not part of what I envisioned he would look like, but I realized that it didn’t change my view of his brilliance.

If we catch ourselves making judgments on people, mentally using terms like “biker,” “scary,” “dummy,” “weirdo,” or “Lydia the tattooed lady”—or on the flip side “loser,” “decrepit,” or “L-7,” we are acting from a state of preconception that is both ill-advised and limiting.

How an area looks (part one)

When you walk into a boutique in a fancy area of town and see only three purses displayed elegantly on white shelving, with white furniture and white carpeting, you are not expecting those purses to be bargain-basement prices. Conversely, when you see a bin of clothes all thrown together haphazardly in the back corner of a discount store, marked “Clearance!” you are not expecting to find full-priced designer clothes there. The setting for the materials influences our perception of what we will find.

In a work environment, if you walk into an area where everything is maintained according to 5S, you may have a different preconception about the quality of parts being produced vs. an area where there is grease and sawdust everywhere, and tools haphazardly placed. We may assume that “neat” equals “high quality,” but we must remember that data is one of the few ways to determine the quality of a part. Although we find that generally a neat area equates to high quality, we should always verify this preconception with actual data.

How an area looks (part two)

If you’ve gone through the house-selling process, you know that you should make the home appealing to as many different styles as possible. A home painted in striking colors, or one with a dirt lot for a front yard, won’t sell as easily as a home painted in a neutral tone or with a beautiful manicured lawn.

In a work environment, you may disagree with a top manager who is “wasting” money on building upkeep and landscaping, but she may be positioning the company to appeal to customers or potential partners. Management might be making improvements to deliberately play into these preconceptions that customers or potential buyers may have, to convey a positive message or a sense of stability and wealth.

How someone will respond

My family and I were at the airport waiting in a long line of passengers trying to rebook flights due to weather delays. The harried employee at the counter had been yelled at by the five people in front of me (as if she could control when a blizzard would hit or the flights it would delay). When I got up to the counter, she barely made eye contact. Glancing at me quickly, she mechanically asked, “May I help you?” No doubt she was bracing to be yelled at again. Her eyes were downcast, shoulders were hunched, and she typed for probably 10 or 15 seconds without looking up. She had been “programmed” to expect a negative experience by the passengers ahead of me.

I didn’t speak until she looked up at me, then I smiled at her, complimented her on how well she had handled the irate passengers ahead of me, and said I was grateful for her showing up through the snowstorm to wait on me. Her attitude completely changed. Her shoulders relaxed, she chuckled and said, “I didn’t have much choice; I was snowed in here!” She had been manning the desk since early that morning. I asked her what her favorite drink was and sent my kids to the nearest vendor to get her one while she waited on us.

Armed with coffee exactly the way she liked it, and being repeatedly thanked for what she was doing and how well she was doing it, her mental state seemed much improved by the time we left. I had changed her preconception of how every person in line would act, and consequently she was better able to perform her job and approach each customer’s unique situation.

I wonder how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I know what their answer is going to be before I even ask the question.” This preconception happens frequently because we are conditioned to expect certain answers.

So, can we overcome these preconceptions? The answer is a resounding “yes.” We can if we treat each person, co-worker, server, or supervisor with respect as a human being with thoughts, emotions, and feelings, and with the respect we grant someone with knowledge we don’t yet possess. Whether that knowledge is how to make a system run more efficiently or how to view a process the way someone directly using it does, everyone has something to teach us.

If you realize you’re jumping to conclusions or viewing things through a filter of preconceived notions, try to reframe your approach by keeping some of these techniques in mind:
• Every situation is unique. What new, interesting, or insightful thing will I learn about this process?
• Every person is unique. Before I immediately start classifying a person into preconceived categories, what do I really know about her? Nothing. So she is a blank canvas. (Then get to know her.)
• Every area is unique. My task is to see how the work is done. Perhaps I’ll have suggestions for improvement, perhaps not. Either way, I will have learned more about how this area works.

Awakening to the fact that we are prone to preconceptions is difficult to experience. It’s also one of the best things that could ever happen to us. Only then can we be aware of and refrain from this unconscious behavior.


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Mary F. McDonald