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Stop killing potential with “You don't look/sound like a ...”

So many organisations have great intentions to ‘attract and retain the best talent’, ‘foster innovation’, ‘adapt to the changing environment’. And yet at the everyday interaction level we kill the potential to realise these intentions due to the way we think – psychologists call them cognitive biases.


One such thought pattern that can be unhelpful and instantly kills potential is “you don’t look/sound/feel like…” We all have this thought, whether we’re conscious of it or not. It happens so quickly we may not even notice it. We can also be on the receiving end. It’s a manifestation of unconscious bias at a very practical, everyday level.


Here are some real examples:


I recently heard a presentation by a senior leader from a bank, who was a British woman with an Indian background. She told a story about when she entered a university computer science class "I don't think you belong to this class". Another was about her female friend, who got told "You don't look like an engineer" as the first comment in a job interview.


It reminded me of times where it was not that I got told to my face "you don't look like a..." but felt the effect of that thinking. Such as when people expressed concern when I got assigned to a consulting team leader role earlier in my career, even though the manager was confident about me. Or when I suggested a new idea that had not been tried before and got told that it’s not ‘best practice’.


Sometimes we say it out loud. Most times we don't. A lot of times we justify the thinking as intuition or gut feel. Sometimes we justify it as the "wrong fit", lacking capability or 'appropriate' style.


I'm sure sometimes we are right. But if that's our default method of perceiving, we're simply recreating the past, limiting the potential for a new reality.


So with these thought patterns rife in organisations, it is possible that:

  • The best person for the job isn’t getting the job. Perhaps because they didn’t look like what the interviewer expected. Perhaps they didn’t speak confidently. Or the person may have been judged as unlikely to ‘fit’ the team culture.
  • The idea or seed of an idea that has great potential are getting dismissed. Perhaps it’s too outside the expected thinking. It may have been suggested by someone who “don’t look/sound like they know what they’re talking about”. Perhaps they were tentative in suggesting the idea.
  • The organisation is not adapting because the new trends don’t fit with the existing majority view. Perhaps the person pointing out the new trend is perceived to be too young, too old, too outside of the field to know.


In what some people call the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, can we afford to have these thought patterns limiting our potential?


The thought pattern is useful or harmless in situations such as:

  • Someone you don’t know walks towards you. You feel danger so you walk away.
  • A person you don’t know calls you and starts telling you about a product you’re not interested in. You tell them you’re not interested.
  • Someone who looks young tells you they have 3 older children (I have friends like that!) so you say, “you don’t look like a mum of three older kids!” as a surprise and compliment.


In these situations we’re protecting ourselves of expressing a pleasant surprise, based on our past experience and memories. In many other situations, however, it’s not so useful.


Next time a little voice in your head says something like "you don't look/sound/feel like a ...", may I suggest you pause and think:

  • Is it because you're attached to a certain image/sound/feel from the past?
  • Are you willing to create a new reality?
  • If so, find out more about the person, with curiosity.


If you happen to be on the receiving end of such thinking,

  • Remember that they are recreating their past.
  • You don't have to buy into their past - don't internalise what they say/think. One of the tragic outcomes is that we start to say to ourselves, “I don’t look/sound/feel like a … and not take the opportunity.”
  • Find others who are willing to create a new future.


Have you noticed this little voice in your head? Have you been on the receiving end?


Related articles:

Assumptions: The Silent Assassin

Are you a leader that gets the best from a mix of different people?

Unconscious bias is a business issue, not just a diversity issue

Christmas presents fit in boxes, people don’t

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