Rushing to judgement

16 07 2013

I meditate, generally using my breath as a guide but sometimes using the metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation. This is a buddhist meditation where the mind is not cleared but encouraged into kindness, peace and loving thoughts directed first towards self, then to someone close, then to someone you feel neutral about and finally directed towards someone you find challenging. It is a beautiful meditation which I find does work in engendering feelings of loving kindness towards myself and others.

The relevance here is that I find it really hard to find someone who I feel neutral about. When learning this meditation my teacher suggested bringing to mind someone who you knew of but who you didn’t really know. Perhaps someone who had served you in a shop or the postman. But it is hard to visualise a person without invoking the feelings that you have about that person, even if it was just a brief encounter. My postman is always cheery despite being barked at by my dog from the other side of the door virtually every morning, while the guy in the post office is a grumpy old devil despite the fact that I always smile at him.

I don’t know either of these people but I have made a judgement,of sorts, from scant knowledge.

My father, then a director of a multinational was, once a year, involved with the university milk round. He interviewed the brightest and best for the wide range of management training opportunities offered by his conglomerate. He is retired now and the multinational he worked for long since split into its many component parts so I feel safe in making this disclosure. There were many traits that would guarantee a students failure at interview even before they spoke.

For example, wearing slip on shoes meant that you were lazy. If you couldn’t be bothered to tie your own shoelaces then you were very unlikely to be inclined to put yourself out for the company. The same went for beards, wearers being clearly too lazy to shave. A coloured shirt with white collar, popular in the 80’s and making something of a comeback at the moment, was a clear indication of being flash, and therefore not to be trusted. And red ties? No real reason but these, and braces incidentally, each condemned the wearer to the fate of receiving the thanks-but-no-thanks letter a couple of days after the interview.

It used to horrify me that such banal physical things could, in my Dad’s mind, be indicators of moral failings and I was appalled that he would rush to judgement in that way. But my metta bhavana experience shows that I do it too, probably we all do…which is why I have a tattoo.

I don’t like tattoos. I never have. They are a sure-fire indicator that the wearer is ignorant, ill-educated and part of society’s underclass.  This is my gut reaction to seeing someone with a tatoo, my rush to judgement. My own tattoo, therefore, is a challenge to myself not to make instant decisions about others. To try to see beyond the first impression and to try to understand what has led people to make the decisions that they have and to lead the lives that they do.

So, the young man sitting opposite me on the train as I write this, wearing his bright white Nike track suit and talking too loudly on his phone is probably charming if you got to know him and kind to his Mum – probably!

Diversity – leading by example

3 06 2013

The3rdimagazine is a magazine that, historically, has looked at business issues from a woman’s perspective. While the focus has widened to include co-operative, social and collaborative enterprises and to examine alternative business and economic models it is entirely appropriate that the main issue when we consider diversity here to look at issues such as the representation of women on boards.

However an issue that needs addressing, and quickly, is the lack of diversity at the very top of government in the UK.

A government report published by former Labour Minister Alan Milburn found that while fee paying schools educate just 7% of pupils in the UK they account for;

  • 59% of cabinet ministers
  • 35% of MP’s
  • 45% of senior civil servants
  • 80% of Supreme Court Judges
  • 43% of barristers
  • 54% of leading journalists.

While children of wealthy families have far greater access to opportunity than children from poor families, in everything from gap year internships to ski-ing holidays, education is supposed to be a great leveller. It is supposed to work in allowing children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed and to compete with their more advantaged peers. It is supposed to create a level playing field. Yet what we now see is the ability to reach the top dictated by what Warren Buffet has called, ‘The Lucky Sperm Club’. Put less prosaically, a society where who your parents are, and then the school they can afford to send you to, is the critical factor in determining your future success.

The lack of diversity amongst our decision makers, with the Prime Minister, Mayor of London, Chief Whip and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, to name but a few, being former pupils of Eton College not only impairs social mobility and perpetuates inequality, it mitigates against diversity due, not least, to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs. We all do it. I read newspaper articles and facebook posts and watch documentaries that are in line with my existing beliefs and opinions. Even when we do expose ourselves to alternative points of view, that too may be a form of confirmation bias; in that we seek to confirm that the opposition is, indeed, wrong.

Confirmation bias leads us when interviewing to chose candidates that are most like we are. Men are more likely to favour male candidates in the boardroom. This, not poor quality candidates or insufficient number of applicants, is the most likely factor that mitigates against getting more women into these senior positions. It is not necessary for confirmation bias to be conscious for it to work!

In her book, Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan argues that the biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don’t see – not because they’re secret or invisible, but because we’re willfully blind. We turn a blind eye in order to feel safe, to avoid conflict, to reduce anxiety and to protect prestige.

Both these phenomenon mitigate against increases in diversity. We chose to operate in ways which confirm our existing prejudices and we fail to see that which we choose not to see.

We know that confirmation bias exists so we must do what we can to work against our unconscious or subconscious prejudices. We know that we have a tendency to ignore issues that have the potential to cause conflict or unrest so we must do more to challenge existing structures and systems.

We must all lead by example when it comes to increasing diversity. In our businesses we need diversity. Board diversity helps provide balance to the maverick, testosterone fuelled decision-making processes that brought down the big four banks and other financial institutions. Employee engagement at all levels of the company, and yes at board level, would also be a major positive influence. What we need to create is an environment of rich cultural, gender and social diversity.

And what is true in businesses is just as true in our government. We need a more representative legislature; more women, more individuals who have experience in areas other than just politics and a very good place to start would be by employing fewer public schoolboys.