If you want to see how instant judgements about a person influence people, watch Susan Boyle’s performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in the 2009 Britain’s Got Talent contest.
Before Ms Boyle says anything, the camera pans the audience capturing their cynical, judgemental looks. Looking at her you see a normal woman who doesn’t match the manicured, coiffed, magazine imitation appearances of the judges and audience. There is nothing abnormal, extreme, bizarre about Ms Boyle. She simply doesn’t match ‘the norm’ of the typical contestant.
Once these judgements have been made, anything she says is unbelievable. Her dream to be a professional singer is met with scepticism, heavenward looks, raised eyebrows, glances at fellow audience members that say ‘not likely’, ‘who does she think she is’.
All the assumptions are negative. No one looks like they are prepared to give Ms Boyle the benefit of the doubt.
Then she sings.
Audience looks change to astonishment. They can’t compute what they see as the contrast between her appearance, the assumptions they have made and the expectations they had [she’s going to make a fool of herself], with the reality of her skill.
Slowly, people shift their perceptions and acknowledge the calibre of Susan’s performance.
To her credit, one of the judges, a woman, calls it for what it is.
We all make assumptions about people based on first impressions. Sadly, there are times when those assumptions are not questioned, suspended, nor changed in the face of contrary evidence. There are times when once having made a judgement, we look for evidence to support it, even when faced with no evidence or contradictory evidence.
Workplace contexts where people need to suspend judgement include:
- Job interviews
- Meetings that explore diverse viewpoints
- Meeting new staff
- Consultations with staff, clients, stakeholders
- Presentations by managers
- Professional development events.
Most corporate values include respect. Respect starts with being open minded, suspending judgement, being curious, being prepared to give people the benefit of the doubt. ‘It seems like this, but I’ll wait and see’. ‘On the face of it, the evidence points to …, but I’ll wait and see’.
When what is at stake is high – say a job offer decision that affects a person’s life – being mindful about suspending judgement is an essential skill. Not only is attention to one’s own thinking needed, you may need to call others to account for their thinking. Given the bulk of Susan’s audience were blinded by their own thinking, it would have been difficult for a person to adopt an independent approach.
If extending this level of respect to work colleagues is a tall order, start with family and friends. If we do them the disservice of making ill or uninformed judgements, then there’s not much hope for how we treat people we don’t know so well.