Good Leaders Acknowledge Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is real.

But when I see it in action, I feel paralyzed. Because I know I can overstep, with good intentions. When this overstepping happens, it pushes down other voices, rather than lifting them. In this scenario, I’m taking the stage and positioning myself as the savior.

I understand I have a propensity to try to fix things. Besides a lot of anecdotes as proof, I also have some data:

  • My MBTI is ENFJ – the Protagonist who can be guilty of overstepping in order to fix things.
  • My Clifton Strength Finder results include “Restorative” as one of my strengths: “By nature, you sometimes influence people by pointing out what they need to fix.”

Ouch.

Sometimes these qualities are helpful to the people around me. My clients count on it, and the people I love do too.

But here’s a rub – I’m in the majority.

The cards are stacked in my favor. I’ve always been a straight, white, Lutheran, highly-educated male. In short, I tend to get favorable eye contact and the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s an example of a situation that paralyzed me, followed by the expert advice that changed my approach. I was checking into a chain hotel in a small Iowa town. Here’s how it went for me:

Me: “I have a reservation, my name is Alan Feirer, and I’m a rewards member.”

Man at desk: “Yup, got you here.”

Me: “Would you like to see my ID?” [I always approach with ID and credit card out to make it quick.]

Desk Man: No, that’s okay. Use the credit card on file?

Me: “Yup. Want to see it?”

Desk: “No, that’s okay. Got it here. Here’s your keys.”

He was a super friendly and efficient guy. I love customer service like that.

This is a typical experience for me.

I can get from the front entrance to unlocking my room door in one or two minutes.

The next person in line, a black woman, started almost exactly like I did.

Next Guest: “I’m [name], I have a reservation. I’m a rewards member, too.” (She’d been next in line for my whole check-in process.)

Desk man: Yup, got you here. Can I see your ID?

Guest: “Here.” [presents ID]

Desk: Where you coming in from today?

Guest: “Chicago.”

The man at the desk gave a knowing nod at that point.

Desk: “Ah, yeah. Okay. Thanks. Do you want to pay with a credit card?”

Guest: “Yes, it should be on file, sir, right?”

Desk: “Yup, see it here. We just like to swipe it to keep it up to date.”

This was the first time the woman and I made eye contact during this incident. I had started to leave, but when I heard him ask for her ID, I lingered to eavesdrop.

So, I put on my most shocked and empathetic face. The message I tried to convey was: “I am offended on your behalf and can’t believe this obvious racism.”

She gave me a look, too, and I wish I knew exactly what it meant, but I think it meant something like this: “Oh, honey, I don’t need you here. I’ve got this. You have no idea.”

And then I did this: Nothing. Went to my room. Didn’t say a word.

But I could not shake that story. Now, I have lived in some pretty darn white places in my life. I have tons of stories of getting the benefit of the doubt and clearly favorable treatment, but I had never seen such an immediate and obvious contrast, right in front of my face.

Her experience was likely typical for her, and my experience was typical for me.

What does it do to a person when he always gets favorable eye contact and the benefit of the doubt? I start to believe a couple of things:

  1. I deserve it – I’m literally entitled to it.
  2. If people are nice and good, like me, they will get the exact same treatment. If they don’t, they must have done something wrong.

A lifetime of those feelings can build up.

In contrast, what does it do to a person when they rarely get favorable eye contact or the benefit of the doubt, because their appearance is different?

Do they begin to feel that they deserve it? That they’re literally never entitled to favorable treatment?

What’s it like to have to consciously think, all the time, about having to prove that you’re good, worthy, and not suspicious? All. The. Time.

I felt lingering guilt for not saying or doing anything in the situation at the hotel. I still think the woman wanted me to stay out of it, but what if I read her wrong? Or what if it doesn’t matter? I’m a protagonist, after all, a “Restorative” type, right? I have the power to use my voice for good, and I blew it.

At the risk of virtue-signaling, here’s a good thing I do:

Every quarter, I host a breakfast and invite a small group of clients to hear a speaker who is an expert on something they need, but I can’t offer.

Last year, I brought in one of the leading voices on Diversity and Inclusion in workplaces, Claudia Schabel. When it was time for Q & A, I immediately told the hotel story and asked, “What should I have done?”

Claudia gave me two pointers. In short:

  • Leave room for the voices of others, but know it’s okay to use your voice.
  • When you do use it, though, talk about your own experience. Make no assumptions about others, like the woman at the hotel. Don’t guess at her intent from her expression. Don’t stick up for her. But talk about your OWN experience. 

To follow her advice in that situation, she suggested that I could have said something like: “Excuse me, I didn’t have to show you my credit card or ID, and that makes me uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem fair.”

I’ve been trying to keep that advice in mind. Allow space for the voices of others, and speak to my own experiences. I don’t always nail it. In fact, I will never learn enough. But I’ll keep trying, and I urge you to do so as well.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

6 Responses

  • Alan,

    This article seems very appropriate in today climate. While I claim to not be prejudice, I in someways we all carry a bit of the burden of prejudice – because it’s different from what I am. Thanks for your comments.

    BTW – I just finished reading the book IDEAL TEAM PLAYER you recommended and really enjoyed it.

  • Allan, that’s so thoughtful of you. Your approach was well calculated and what Claudia suggested is also a safe approach considering that particular situation.

    There is always covert underlying prejudice/racism/ entitlement/superior complex which is difficult to deal with or detect.
    As a minority living in Iowa I could count multiple incidents which made me feel like that’s normal. In any case I’m black in a predominantly white state, and a foreigner for that matter. Which proves your point about entitlement or the belief that that’s where I’m supposed to be until you have an opportunity to compare two similar situations seconds apart.

    • I’m so thankful for your voice here, Daudi, and I’m better for knowing you and working with you at Wartburg. So glad you have weighed in.

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