Why we judge human beings by their covers and what to do about it

Recently I found myself looking around a financial services website trying to find out who was on the Exec Team. I wanted to see photos. I wanted to know who was in charge. What experience they had. If they knew what they were doing. If their beliefs and values aligned with mine. If I could trust them.


I don’t know about you but when I go into a bookstore (bricks and mortar or online) and pick up a book, the first thing I do is look at the cover of the book. The second thing I do is look for is the cover of the author i.e. their photo. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I’m looking for in that photo – may be the curiosity in their eyes, maybe the warmth in their smile, maybe a particular tilt to the head. But I’m looking (based on a photo for heaven’s sake) for something to connect with – something that makes me feel like whoever the author is might have something of value to share with me.

It’s a truism that people do business with people, not organisations. And as human beings, we still judge each other by our human covers. This is one of the strengths and challenges of building diverse and inclusive cultures. The ‘thin slicing’ we do to make the necessary inferences about people to determine if they are friend or foe is hard-wired. It’s not going to go away. And yet the tone of much of the rhetoric around unconscious bias is that we are somehow flawed for being biased. We’re not. We’re simply human.

The problem arises because D & I pedals the importance of difference. Understandably, as all the research points to this being where the benefits of diversity lie. The conundrum is that to respect and appreciate the diversity we bring we have to start with what we have in common, for it is our commonalities that bond us.

Hence my frustration when I couldn’t find any information about the Exec Team on the website. I wanted to know who I might be doing business with. I wanted a sense of connection, that we were on the same side. And so, it is with the D & I interventions that work. We have to start not with our differences but what we have in common. We have to start with connection and that begins with revealing information about ourselves. It starts with our human covers, but it deepens with knowledge of each other’s priorities, goals, experiences and what this all means for each of us.

These conversations are not always easy to have. They need to be navigated with sensitivity and a light touch. But they are the bedrock on which relationships, teams, and organisations are built.

The challenge for leaders is that we need to be the ones that go first. We have to start by sharing who we are, what matters to us and what we struggle with in order to create the psychological safety for others to share not only what they have in common but how they are and feel different. As leaders, we have to be willing to be vulnerable. This is counter-cultural in most business environments. It takes courage and curiosity and the willingness to make mistakes. But if we are truly serious about going beyond our wiring to truly embracing a diversity of experiences and ways of thinking we have to take risks.

The question then becomes, what have you shared about yourself today to make it easier for others to connect with you?


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