Perceptions and prejudices

General Mills India's MD Mainak Dhar reviews Mahzarin R Banaji and Anthony G Greenwald's book 

Published 5 years ago on Aug 13, 2016 3 minutes Read

For those of you who’ve watched Jerry Maguire (the old Tom Cruise starrer), the movie that made the line ‘you had me at hello’ part of popular culture, it would make sense if I say that Blind Spot had me at the title. As a book that is devoted to understanding how unconscious biases and stereotypes sometimes influence our perceptions and choices, it takes away one of the core issues involved in any such discussion through a brilliant choice of title.

The bottom line, which the authors Banaji and Greenwald elaborate, is that most of us think of ourselves as ‘good people’ and any discussion associated with being labelled biased or stereotyped makes us get our defense mechanisms up which prevent meaningful dialogue or introspection. So, at the outset the authors tackle that; make us open to the idea that even ‘good people’ like us can have unconscious biases and then elucidate why those are created and how we can watch out for them. Lots of books are called engaging, but when a book makes me close my eyes and follow along with a little experiment on the first page itself, it does really set a high benchmark on what it means to engage a reader.

The authors then plunge into what may cause us to have such blind spots, covering a lot of ground— from ingrained habits that cause us to make errors in perceiving things (what they call mindbugs) to a very illuminating chapter on how we tailor responses and indeed our truthfulness to how questions are framed. A simple but powerful example they cite is how we react to someone asking us, ‘Do I look fat?’ While most of us have a self-image of being honest, do we always truthfully answer such questions? That chapter opens the reader’s mind to the fact that when we talk of biases, there is usually no malintent but ingrained habits or perceptions that makes us express choices that do reflect our biases. The authors spend a lot of time applying these to race biases and stereotypes in the US, but one area that has immediate applicability in the Indian corporate context is that of gender diversity.

The data is out there. In Indian companies, women occupy only one in eight management-level jobs. At executive levels, that number falls to one in twenty. Multinational companies are a bit better off, but only slightly. In MNCs, women occupy one in five management roles, and one in ten executive roles. A lot has been said and written about what needs to be done to create more diversity in our workplaces and improved diversity is on the agenda for corporate India. What Blind Spot should make us question is what indeed are those mindbugs or blind spots that cause us to inadvertently create an environment or take decisions that come in the way of truly creating an atmosphere where women feel as welcomed and see an equal chance to succeed.

The simple fact that most hiring and promoting managers today are men, who no doubt see themselves as ‘good people’, means that perhaps, they focus on symptoms (percentage diversity, promotion rates) and not on the root causes (the not always visible biases that come in the way when it matters). Blind Spot should be recommended reading not just for HR managers but any male manager who looks at a comment on diversity and thinks, ‘I am not biased. I am a good person.’ Indeed, you are, and we all are, but as this book teaches us, we all have those blind spots and the self-awareness to question our inherent biases and assumptions is the first step in driving change.

In short, get Blind Spot. You won’t regret it.