It has been said that we ‘don’t see the world as it is but rather we see the world as we are’. This is very true and it also happens to be the first step along the pathway towards emotional intelligence. It is the gateway to recognising that we each have lenses through which we see and interpret the world around us – in other words, in less friendly terms, we all have our own biases that need to be identified before we begin to really see.
In the film, What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays the lead character and there is a particular scene in this light-hearted comedy that provides a wonderful illustration of this point of our own biases preventing us from truly seeing. The plot centres on the main character (Gibson), a successful business executive acquiring the ability to ‘hear the thoughts of the women around him’. There is one particular woman who has previously gone ‘unnoticed’ in the office set-up. She doesn’t have a very important role, has a retiring personality, isn’t particularly attractive and she just ‘flies under the radar’ with no one, especially Gibson, paying her much attention. As he starts to hear her thoughts however he comes to ‘see her’ and it is obvious that she is depressed and is acutely aware of her isolation. One day she fails to show-up for work and Gibson realises that she is most likely at home and is depressed enough to take her own life. Having sourced her address he is running through China town, an unfamiliar part of the city to him, desperately trying to locate her address and intervene before it is too late. In his haste he runs past an elderly Chinese woman who is sitting on the pavement selling fruit without giving her a second thought. Increasingly desperate to locate the address and increasingly lost, it then occurs to him that this Chinese woman most likely knows this part of town like the back of her hand and is someone who can help him. He retraces his steps to her, stoops down and asks her help. She immediately points him to the location he is seeking.
Within this one scene is a wonderful ‘case study’ of Gibson’s blindness to the very person who could help him. Gibson has several lenses through which he is seeing: he is a young, wealthy, well-educated, English speaking American white male. Pause and consider for a moment why he at first didn’t ‘see’ the one person who could help him: In the Chinese woman we have an old, poor, uneducated, Chinese woman – the very antithesis of himself. His lenses (biases) at first rendered her completely invisible to him. Whilst this is starkly illustrated in this scene it is an all too common scene in every day reality within the places we live and work.
We like to think not but I have chatted to too many people who testify otherwise. And if the truth were told, at some or other point we are all guilty of such blindness. In particular this non-seeing is prevalent across the gender barrier. “Here we go again” I can almost hear the average male sighing as they read this but sadly, it is all too often true. It can often be unintentional and one classic way it plays out in male dominated environments is around the informal conversations, the small talk before getting to the ‘real’ agenda. Talk in these instances is often dominated by topics that exclude some and here the classic example is that of sports-talk. Now, let me add that I am not implying that woman cannot or do not participate in such conversations but even although I am generalizing (always a dangerous practice), I think it fair to say that this is a good example. What follows is an edited extract from a leadership reflection paper (used with permission) written by a woman participant from the Asia Pacific Leadership Program in which I am involved. The writer is writing about a United States Ambassador (a woman) for whom she worked. But let the story speak for itself as a rich illustration of this point – and also a wonderful bit of advise on how to deal with it!
Ambassador S (name withheld) was a torchbearer for women in U.S. foreign policy. And like any veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, she spoke more than one language. Except she was fluent in eight different languages! Needless to say, irrespective of what your definition of a “leader” is, she was inarguably one!
Her ability as a sexagenarian to connect so deeply with her staff, nearly all-recent college graduates, was remarkable. Her ability to make you feel that your views (on issues she herself has intimately dealt with for decades on the field) matter was encouraging. Her ability to stimulate intellectually rigorous thoughts and discussions were significant. And, her habit of getting her interns coffee belied her position as the head of a very successful program. She was the only woman at the organization to head a program. She was also the only Director at that organization to bring coffee for her staff.
While gender was never mentioned explicitly, everyone knew that it played a huge role. As the only woman Director at a leading think tank, she was an anomaly. D.C. at large is a big old boy’s club. Our organization was no different.
I remember coming from a staff meeting, fretting over what I said or shouldn’t have said; feeling like fish out of water. As a graduate of a women’s college, for the first time in many years I was in the minority (I was among the three women Research Assistants out of twenty). As soon as I came back, she called me in her office as she often would after a meeting. Her first question was: “was there a lot of sports talk?” I nodded. She smiled faintly and said, “don’t try to change who you are so you can fit into a boy’s club.” Her advise: when people start talking football, change it to what you like. Books. Movies. Music. Whatever. Take charge and change the conversation if you like. Don’t pretend. Authenticity should never be compromised upon. And then she asked me to pass on this message to the other two women RA’s.
Learning to ‘see the invisible’ is tough work yet it is essential work for any leader serious about their responsibility. Not taking others into account because of their – gender, age, culture, education, status, personality, sexuality, appearance…to mention the more obvious, is to live and lead as though blind.
It might be well worth your while to create a ‘safe environment’ in which to have a conversation around ‘blindness’ and creating opportunity for everyone to share personal stories of when they have felt as though others (and maybe that is you) have ‘not seen them’.
TomorrowToday Global has recently launched the digital resource, ‘START Conversations.’ The aim of START Conversations is a tool to help facilitate those difficult, yet important work-place conversation that we need to be having, but aren’t. Seeing our own ‘blindness’ in order to better ‘see those around us’ is an essential first step for every leader wishing to really engage those them. It is certainly easier said than practiced.
In doing this work we need feedback; we need to step-back and reflect on our own actions and reactions; we need to be willing to put our thoughts and intentions under a microscope. Leaders operate in the unforgiving glare of the public spotlight where the failure to have done such interior work will, at some or other point, be revealed. That is simply just the way it is in our connected, transparent and unforgiving world.
Download one of the conversation ‘tool kits’ here for FREE to try in your next team meeting.
This particular conversation looks at the 3 dimensions of learning and provides a ’10 Top tips to keep learning’ document from our team as part of the resource.