How Middle Managers Can Make a Difference

How Middle Managers Can Make a Difference

“When I was first hired as Production Manager, I got a pretty negative impression of one of my Leads,” said José, even though his employee was older and had been at the plant longer. José explained, “His expertise was important to the production process, but all I ever heard from him were complaints about how things were run, like nobody would ever be able to fix anything and things were so messed up. I just decided he was grumpy and gave him a wide berth.”

José was put off by his employee’s remarks and actions, and also felt sorry for the guy because he knew the company had a history of neglecting its employees. But José was convinced that it would take a long time before this veteran employee “improved” his attitude and, as a new manager in the middle of turn-around, he didn’t have the luxury of time.

When we’ve got a business to run or work to do in the day-to-day grind it can be hard to slow down. The fast thinking we all do enables us to work efficiently and assess quickly whether a person, group, or situation is helpful or hurtful.(1)

José needed to keep moving, so he made an assumption about his Lead and inadvertently started climbing the “Ladder of Inference.”

How fast thinking works

The Ladder of Inference has five steps. First proposed by business theorist Chris Argyris in 1970, it describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, which moves from observation to action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder. Thinking fast, we…

  1. Select data because we can’t take in all that is presented to us at one time, we subconsciously choose what we should pay attention to
  2. Paraphrase data by putting the part we chose into our own words and applying our existing assumptions
  3. Name what’s happening and subconsciously generalize about that data point we chose
  4. Evaluate what’s happening as good or bad based on our value system and our existing theories
  5. Decide what actions to take that seem “right” because they are based on what we believe (2)

We can see that embedded in each step of this ladder of data selection and refinement is our unconscious bias. That bias is shaped by the culture around us. Being repeatedly exposed to images in movies, news media, stories, jokes, etc. within our culture reinforces reflexive data selection. In other words, we make assumptions about people and situations without even knowing it.

The ability to categorize people quickly and automatically according to social and other characteristics is a basic skill of the human brain that helps give order to life’s complexity and keeps us safe.(3) And because we all have a fundamental for order and safety, we can’t help but categorize.

However, because fast thinking is stereotyping and automatic, it’s also fallible, leading to inaccurate, often irrational conclusions and alienating actions.

Don’t climb the ladder

So we can choose to avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference altogether – by accepting the idea that we’re always going to make assumptions about what others say and do. It’s how people are. And if we didn’t draw on our past experience and own cultural context to help us interpret the world, we’d be lost; we wouldn’t be able to learn from our experience.

The trick, then, is to draw on our experience and context in a way that holds our assumptions in check.

We can…

  1. Reflect. Notice our assumptions, reasoning and reactions.
  2. Verify. Check back and see if we were clear about how we communicated with others about our thinking, reasoning and feelings
  3. Inquire. Ask questions about what others are thinking and feeling and test our assumptions for accuracy

What happened

Though definitely put off by his Lead’s complaints, José began to wonder if any of them were legitimate. His Lead had been with the company for decades and likely had insight that José could learn from. On his daily rounds, José decided to make a point to spend a few extra minutes with his Lead. José made sure he wrote down the Lead’s ideas (even if they sounded negative) and told him he’d either get an answer or get the idea to a person who could address the issue. In each case, José made it a point to circle back with him the same day and give him some type of report to demonstrate his concern.

When I asked him what happened, José said, “It actually didn’t take long before his attitude began to change; he began to smile when I came around. He stopped just pointing out negative stuff; he pointed out problems but also offered solutions. After just a few weeks, he was more productive and a nicer guy to have around. And I felt better about my leadership.” The Lead’s behavior and demeanor had changed when his younger boss took the time to ensure that his employee felt valued and heard.

Working to ensure an employee feels valued and heard is Cultural Intelligence in action. Cultural Intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our behavior to show genuine respect across differences of generation, gender, race, nationality or education-levels.

Within the context of our crises of pandemic and protesting, its particularly important that employees feel valued, heard and engaged. When I speak with clients, I’ve heard time and again how social distancing is causing both workers on factory floors and mangers in home offices to feel isolated and alone. Now more than ever we need our Cultural Intelligence to recognize and affirm a person’s experience so that our employees can know and feel that they are a valuable part of our community.

What a leader can do

Leaders and their teams can inadvertently hinder their growth by climbing the Ladder of Inference and restricting themselves to data that support their existing assumptions. This may lead to inadvertently ignoring contradictory data that might be vital to relationships, collaboration and innovation.(4)

If we think we know what someone is going to say or do, we’re already near the top of the ladder. Leaders can be aware that embedded assumptions can hinder our ability to connect with people, practices and information and can stifle inquiry.

So to summarize, leaders, the better option is to slow down and…

  1. Reflect. Notice our own and the group’s assumptions, reasoning and reactions
  2. Accept. Realize that meaning and assumptions are not reality but perception
  3. Model. Make our thought processes visible to others
  4. Inquire. Ask what others are thinking and feeling and what they see differently
  5. Wonder. Consider the source and other possible interpretations of the data
  6. Verify. Cross-check that assumptions are based on the data they’ve gathered

It’s counter-intuitive, in the urgency we can feel in Western cultures, that slowing down is a more efficient approach to problem solving. But to increase collaboration and productivity in our organizations, it’s important to take a few extra minutes within our formal and informal meetings to recognize and affirm the unique experiences and wisdom of our colleagues and direct reports. That’s the beauty of Cultural Intelligence brings to any organization; when we take the time to get down off the Ladder of Inference, leaders and employees feel valued, heard and engaged and the organization realizes more collaboration, productivity and innovation. -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Macmillan.
  2. Senge, P. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday
  3. Frith, U. (2015) Unconscious bias. The Royal Society:
  4. Labrie, P. Mental Models – Ladder of Inference
How to Connect with Your Kid About Tricky Topics

How to Connect with Your Kid About Tricky Topics

“I don’t know if I did it right,“ Louisa told me. She said she’d overheard her son calling it the “Chinese virus” to a group of friends. She’d pulled him aside and told him, “We don’t call the disease by its country of origin. It could come off as racist. We refer to it as Covid-19.”

Louisa explained that her son was concerned he was in trouble for what he’d said, but she realized that – because he’s only 10 year old – she may’ve come on too strong and wanted to soften her approach.

As parents and teachers, when we’re taken off guard, we can overreact. That’s a normal response. When we realize we’ve come on too strong we can:

  1. Slow down
  2. Notice our feelings and those of our child, and
  3. Get more information

She took a breath and said, “No, you’re not in trouble. We just don’t use words like that in our family and what you said took me by surprise. I was wondering where you got that term from.” He told her he’d heard it in a kids’ Messenger group of friends from school.

She explained to her son she could understand why a person would use that term because the virus had originated in China – and if other people are using a term, it’s natural to pick up on it and use it too.

“You have Chinese friends,” she told him, “and I know you wouldn’t want to hurt them but by using a term that could push them away.” Besides, she said we’re Italian and Greek, and we wouldn’t want somebody to associate a pandemic with your countries of origin, something we can’t do anything about.

Her son agreed, he wouldn’t want that and said he’d be more careful.

She explained to me that they’re raising their kids to be culturally aware. And when she heard him say “Chinese virus” she thought she’d totally failed as a parent. Which is why she’d reacted so strongly. But when she realized she didn’t have the whole story, she calmed down. She said, “I asked if I’d done it right because I want to raise my kids to appreciate people of other cultures and their contributions.

What to do

I told Louisa that she’s on track. A culturally intelligent person appreciates another’s perspective and changes their behavior to show genuine respect. As a parent she had…

  1. Modeled culturally intelligent behavior for her son by recognizing his concern and softening her approach with him.
  2. Talked through with her son what he could do to ensure his actions are not alienating to people but instead thoughtful and considerate.

I explained that when I’m in a tricky cultural situation with kids or adults, I keep in mind the acronym “S.T.O.P.”

  • S – Slow down
  • T – Take 3 deep breaths
  • O – Observe my reaction, notice the feelings of the other person and check that everyone is safe. Then, if everything’s cool, I…
  • P – Proceed with curiosity and wonder.

Without even realizing it, Louisa had slowed down, taken a breath, felt her feelings of overreaction and noticed her son was worried he’d blown it. Then with an attitude of curiosity and wonder she talked it through with her son.

With an attitude of curiosity and wonder, a parent or teacher can say:

  • Where did you learn those words?
  • Let’s consider how those words might impact a person.
  • If roles were reversed, what would you want a person to do?

 To more deeply connect, when your child or teen shares their response, it’s important to hear them out and actively listen so they feel heard and valued.

I explained to Louisa that it’s important she help her son just as she had. When a person calls the disease by the place of origin, like the “Chinese virus,” it puts a face to the blame, and that can negatively influence how we treat people. We need to use words that point to a problem without blaming a group of people.

Louisa was relieved. Later in the day she told me she overheard neighborhood kids using the term and saw the problem was more widespread than she had originally thought. While she was relieved she hadn’t blown it as a parent, she saw we all have more work to do.

The key to greater connection in a family, community or corporation rests on everyone feeling and knowing they are valued, heard and engaged. -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

Five Ways Whites Can Effectively Respond in Cross-cultural Conversation

Five Ways Whites Can Effectively Respond in Cross-cultural Conversation

When someone is in crisis or the whole world is exploding in pandemics and protests what do you do? Studies show most of us respond by minimizing our differences trying to rationalize the crisis down to nothing, invalidating (often infuriating) the person(s) in crisis. Or we minimize by “me tooing” with our own comparable story or we just plain-old ignore what is happening right in front of us. And some of us decide to polarize by going into denial or opposition. Why? Because we don’t know how to respond.

These five steps help you respond to almost any crisis as a compassionate human being:

  1. Focus the discussion on the other person: “Would you mind telling me your story and what you’ve come to understand?” Steer away from centering a conversation on yourself (your thoughts, feelings or experience). This conversation is not about you, its about uncovering the root of the crisis and the other person(s) experience, not yours.
  2. Be a listener and learner in a conversation: “Would you mind telling me more about your experience? What has happened to you?” Steer away from being the speaker and knower of truth. This is not the movies – a white person is not going to solve all the problems with a witty speech.
  3. Affirm the other person’s experience, even if their experience is different from yours: “It sounds like that was tough for you.” Steer away from sharing what you think is a comparable experience that you have had. Let yourself feel what you are hearing.
  4. Show compassion as you listen. Follow these 3 Steps.
  5. Check the impact of your words: “What was the impact of my words on you? Did you feel like I heard you well?” Steer away from being concerned about your intent when you speak, your impact is more important.

When I first started in this work of understanding racism, culture and cultural intelligence as a white woman, I didn’t know how to respond to crisis either. Without knowing how to get it right, I originally thought it would be better to minimize our differences and say nothing at all. But not recognizing a person’s pain, makes the problem worse. It strains a relationship. It hurts the other person. Initially, I just didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand the context of why people protest and how to uncover the cause of people’s pain.

If we don’t know, we need to learn the history and context of people’s pain. There are Anti-racism Resources to help parents, teachers and leaders understand the history of exploitation and context of race in America. For my fellow whites, learning history from this perspective for the first time can be initially heartbreaking and undesirable. But stick with it. Years ago, my mentor suggested that it doesn’t help to avoid it but instead ingest the information at a rate that’s manageable and keeps us in the work; it’s worth it.

I realized I was going to need to know history to engage in culturally intelligent conversations. I also recognized I needed to get to know people who are different from me. How does a white gal from the burbs relate to a black man in the city center? How do you talk with someone different from you at work? How do you be an ally with a person at your place of worship or recreation? The answer is with cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our behavior to show genuine respect. When we feel the freedom to talk and learn with people who hold different perspectives and have distinct backgrounds, we become open to new possibilities for relationship, productivity and positive change.

Why compassion

What I’ve learned over time is that central to cross-cultural conversations is the experience of being understood by another. Each of us has a deep need for human connection. Even when my experience is different, I can express compassion. When I do share compassion, I am working to hold space for the other person to authentically show up, be accountable, work through problems and be successful. I work to keep the focus on them so they feel valued and heard.

What we gain by listening

In capitalist societies, competitiveness is a cultural characteristic that, if we’re not culturally aware, can get in the way of productive and genuine relationships. We can get caught up in trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong in a conversation.

We can get attached to the idea that someone is a loser and someone is a winner, and we want to win. But in that zero sum construct when one person wins, the other loses. It’s either our loss or theirs; in each case both parties lose the opportunity to build a relationship. People lose connection. Organizations lose productivity and opportunities to innovate.

How we win

We know we’ve really “won” when we feel compassion for our colleagues and clients. The survival and well-being of our organizations depend on our collective well-being, not our individual might.

Our collective well-being develops with one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of how people and employees may be/feel exploited, side-lined or silenced. This is where the power of compassion comes into action.

We can notice, feel and respond to systems within our organizations and community that are marginalizing, silencing or excluding people. These systems may include a lack of quality childcare or public transportation; a lack of compassion toward different religious practices or value systems. No matter what becomes apparent in our conversations, we get to notice, feel and respond with compassion and in solidarity.

While words like compassion, feelings and belonging may resonate with you as words that should be used at home with family or in places of worship, it is the exclusion of these words in our work organizations and greater society that aid in marginalizing entire groups of people, minimizing important experiences we could all learn from and alienating us from innovation that moves us forward in life and business.   –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

There’s a Better Question

There’s a Better Question

Why is Covid-19 hitting some communities harder than others? Who exactly has been hit the hardest? These are the questions my daughter Abby Narishkin, a reporter for Business Insider, was looking into for her research for, “The Real Reasons Coronavirus Hits Some Communities Harder Than Others.” Abby lives and works in New York City, but, because New York became a U.S. epicenter in March, she came to shelter with us here in St. Louis.

About the time Abby arrived, headlines were reporting a disproportionate number of people of color dying of Covid-19. Abby wondered why the disparity if we are “all in this together.”

Because Abby and I were together, I had the privilege of watching the depth of research and teamwork that go into producing a report like that. As she uncovered the facts about the number of people of color dying, we felt deep despair. It isn’t fair. With such significant disparities between the experience of whites and people of color, the irony that Abby was safely sheltering with us in suburban St. Louis versus New York City was not lost on us.

For us, difficult questions began to arise. For example, “Are whites to blame for these disparities in our country?” Or, “Are people of color to blame?”

As I thought more about it, I realized questions like these make us defensive, triggering a desire to protect ourselves. They make us turn our attention inward. As a result, we end up talking in ways that are alienating and polarizing to people. And nothing gets accomplished. We do this when questions get tough in our communities, schools, places of worship and work. That inward-only focus can often turn to a complacency, or “analysis paralysis,” that allows those hungry for self-serving control or power the perfect opportunity to exploit the most unintelligent and reflexive parts of our culture and fears.

This pull to look inward isn’t our fault, per se. It’s a symptom of being a part of a larger American culture that focuses on individualism, personal responsibility and protecting our individual rights.

While protecting individual rights is a necessary part of the American collective consciousness, individualism can inadvertently fixate our attention on finger-pointing and blaming. This can keep us from doing the more mature and dignified work of showing up for each other. Determining the root cause(s) can be important to moving, in a time of crisis, from addressing immediate needs band-aid-style, to identifying sustainable, long term solutions. Even in that transition, blame and shame are not required to find and reach solutions. Although often not discussed, personal responsibility includes showing up for each other and for the benefit of the larger community, which in turn benefits the individual.

How to look forward

In light of the data Abby shared in her report, I realized I can use my cultural intelligence to appreciate a perspective different from my own and change my behavior to show genuine respect.

So instead of looking inward, a better course of action is to look outward. To get there, we can:

  1. Accept the disparities as our current reality in America
  2. Express genuine compassion for those who are all too-often sidelined or silenced, and
  3. Ask a question that redirects our attention outward, toward our shared responsibility and common good.

There’s a better question here: “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to ensure everyone feels valued and engaged?”

This question frees us to consider actions that benefit us and the people around us. Instead of feeling helpless, we discover we don’t have to waste energy and time on self-protection but instead consider how we can make a difference and participate in systemic change.

How cultural intelligence opportunities show up in organizations

We’re not the only ones to fall into the trap of self-protection; organizations do too. Corporate diversity programs are often created for the purpose of self-protection. Pamela Newkirk, New York University professor and author of Diversity, Inc, writes that “formal diversity structures” don’t necessarily decrease discrimination. She cites Lauren Edelman, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkley as saying that they’re often “symbolic gestures to public opinion, the views of constituents, social norms or law.” Too often they become “a shield against successful bias lawsuits.”(1)

Not only to avoid litigation, corporate diversity programs also tend to focus on eliminating negative experiences and nasty behavior for minorities because those are easier to track than positive behavior.

But trying to avoid blame and shame as an organization doesn’t free us to do the more impactful work of building an intelligent culture together that ensures everyone in the organization feels valued and engaged.

Thus, the question is: “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to create an organization where everyone, with their unique perspectives and backgrounds, feels valued and engaged?”

Within the context of your organization, it may help to know that, across the board, employees of color not only encounter more negative incidents than their white counterparts, they also miss out on the experiences that leave them feeling good about themselves and their employers. This means minority employees not only have more reasons to look into leaving but also fewer reasons to stay than their white colleagues, explain Peter Norlander of Loyola University and Serena Does and Margaret Shih of UCLA.(2)

Their research suggests the gap in positive experiences could account for as much as 10-15% of the difference in attrition rates between whites and employees of color.(2)

What a leader can do:

  1. Be aware of the impact of hidden assumptions. Hidden assumptions are an inherent ‘blind spot’ in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion.(3) For example, white people in the developmental stage of Minimization often assume that people of color have the same opportunities they do. If left unchecked, such assumptions can hinder our ability to talk, behave and work collaboratively and kindly with colleagues and clients who are different from us.
  2. Recognize that retention is based on positive experiences, not avoiding negative ones. Particularly for employees of color, managers can encourage direct reports to take part in decision-making and give input on how to do their job. Managers can encourage coworkers to share effective practices and help each other get the job done. And managers can appropriately recognize a job well done.(2)
  3. Utilize career mapping to communicate value. Career mapping is one strategy for engaging employees in decision-making. In 1-to-1 meetings, managers can connect with their direct reports to discuss their professional goals and potential career advancement opportunities, resources and education available to them within the business. “Rather than assuming that every employee wants to work toward a management-based trajectory, open up the discussion through quarterly or bi-annual surveys asking the employee to identify their pain points with their current role, thoughts on leadership and their ideal role within the organization they want to work toward,” writes Tim Johnson, CEO of Mondo, a leading digital marketing and IT staffing firm. This strategy encourages employees to share their passions and speak up about what it will take to retain them. It also establishes investment in them and their long-term future with the business.(4)

Maybe in 2019 a grocery store checker was regarded as having low education and therefore deserving of low pay or a less desirable job. Now we know that, from the factory worker to the truck driver to the stocker to the checker and everyone in between, each and every one is critical for the survival of our communities and organizations. If we are unwilling to fully value our neighbors and team members and allow them to bring their full contribution to our communities and organizations, why spend the organization’s time and resources to employ them? How much is the loss of contribution and productivity from an undervalued person or community? What’s the profit loss on ¼, ½ or ¾ of an employee’s full potential for the sake of maintaining biases that in the end serve no one?


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

In a global crisis, now is not the time to circle our wagons in self-protection. Now is not the time to turn our attention inward with questions about who’s to blame and who should be ashamed.

It’s the time to turn the work inward to be culturally intelligent and look outward to the systems, behaviors and habits that prevent diversity from being a powerhouse of contribution for good that it can be.

In many predominantly black and brown neighborhoods there are food deserts, restrictive housing practices and less access to equitable education, medical care and jobs, conditions that are fueling Covid-19’s impact in these communities. Organizations have their own versions of this inequity. They have praise deserts, stagnant hierarchical structures and roadblocks to valued productivity and career mobility based on personal and cultural, conscious and unconscious bias that are fueling attrition and potential profit loss.

Now is the time to grow cultural intelligence in our communities and organizations by turning our attention outward. Now is the time to acknowledge that Covid-19 in our society and quota outlines within our organization are not the great equalizers. As the Business Insider report shows, these disparities between whites and people of color existed long before the pandemic and are deeply embedded in our culture. It is paramount that we see how blame and shame delay adoption of the cultural intelligence that can actually increase equity and prosperity.

Now is the time to ensure the dignity of every individual, so that none are lost and the full measure of people’s contributions are gained. Now is the time to ask: Within my sphere of influence as parent, teacher and/or leader, what can I do or, even better, what can we do to ensure each person within our organizations and communities feels valued, heard and engaged?      -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity, Inc., New York: Bold Type Books.
  2. Norlander, P., Does, S. & Shih, M. (working paper) Deprivation at work: Positive workplace experiences and the racial gap in quit intentions.
  3. Banaji, M. & Greenwald, A. (2013) Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York: Delacorte Press.
  4. Johnson, T. (Jun 29, 2018) “The real problem with tech professionals: High turnover. Forbes.
What’s In a Name

What’s In a Name

The other day, my friend James stopped in at the gas station he frequents. He overheard another customer say, “I can’t stand Chinese people. I hate this foreign virus.”

“What?!” James said.

The customer responded, “Why do you think we’re in this mess? We have this Coronavirus because of them.”

James slowed down the conversation and said, “I have two siblings who were adopted from China, and I don’t have a single problem. We’re safe.”

The customer quickly dialed back and said, “No, no, no. I have a problem with the Chinese government, not the people.” Then the customer turned and left.

It hurts when he hears that term. James certainly knows Chinese people are not the cause of Covid-19.

During a time of fear and uncertainty such as this, it’s important to understand how easy it is to get caught up in assumptions, why that happens and what we can do about it.

The way we talk about disease matters, whether it’s a human disease or the types of dis-ease that make organizations sick, and impacts people’s lives and interactions. Describing Covid-19 as a “foreign virus” is not only unhelpful, it’s dangerous.

Why stereotypes are dangerous

Describing Covid-19 as a “foreign virus” is problematic. Ho-Fung Hung, Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University explained that the virus itself doesn’t know ethnic boundaries, so if you’re stuck with this perception that you only need to keep a distance from certain groups of people, you miss the more important steps that need to be taken: maintain physical distance from people outside your household. People can inadvertently lower their guard; they might think they won’t come across someone from Asia, so they’re fine.(1) And when people are worried about being discriminated against, they might feel discouraged from getting the medical care they need. If immigrants are afraid to get tested, that puts the community at large in danger too.

Not only is there the obvious physical danger to the community at large, there is also potential harm to our ability to connect with friends, clients and coworkers. When a person calls this disease the “Chinese flu” or a “foreign virus,” they put a face to the blame, and that can negatively influence a person’s perception and behavior, thus inadvertently alienating a whole group of people. Not only is that not healthy in, it’s destructive to personal and professional relationships.

This isn’t new

At, reporter Catherine Shoichet points out that from the Black Plague to SARS, racism and xenophobia were also in the picture. Here’s what scholars told her about some of these events:

  • “In 14th century Italy, Jewish populations were accused of deliberately poisoning the wells and causing the Black Death. We know examples of this from many places in Europe,” said Nükhet Varlik, associate professor of history at Rutgers University. As rumors spread, Jewish people were killed, buried alive and burned at the stake, he said.(1)
  • “The 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City was very largely blamed on Irish Catholic immigrants,” said Alan Kraut, professor of history at American University.(1)
  • “In 1876, during an outbreak of smallpox in San Francisco, a population of 30,000 Chinese living there became medical scapegoats. Chinatown was blamed as a ‘laboratory of infection,’ and quarantined amidst renewed calls to halt immigration. Things got to the point where there were forced vaccinations of people in the Chinatown community with a vaccine that had not been fully tested,” said Doug Chan, president of the Chinese Historical Society of America and Marie Myung-Ok Lee, writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. The Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted in 1882.(1)

Why humans fall into this trap

Humans are a social species that has evolved to live in big groups but, until recently in human history, had no understanding of specific causes of disease or the way they’re transmitted. So, to minimize the spread of disease, humans ignorantly defaulted to a kind of instinctive social distancing. Its expression was crude, our ancestors operating on a ‘better safe than sorry’ logic.(2) But that binary thinking about who’s safe and who’s not safe sometimes gets mapped against preexisting social prejudices. So, minority groups often become scapegoats during public health emergencies (3)

We might think that we’re unbiased, impartial and fair and so wouldn’t fall into this trap. But we all succumb to this bias, having evolved to be this way. Due to some deeply evolved responses to disease and fears of contagion, we have a “blindspot” we’re often unaware of, which is influencing our behavior toward people.

In a previous blog, “What’s in Your Blindspot?” I explained that an assumption is an idea that we accept as true about a person or group of people without proof. A hidden assumption (or unconscious bias) is an inherent “blind spot” in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion – like thinking Asian people cause Covid-19.

In this pandemic, a particular kind of bias is prevalent: in-group bias. It means the unfair favoring of someone from one’s own group (and denigration of those outside it). From an evolutionary perspective, the bias is about gaining an advantage over other social groups, particularly with respect to protecting and promoting people similar to oneself.

In stressful times like this pandemic, even within their own in-group, people value conformity over eccentricity. The pattern is similar when there is a crisis in your business, and, for example, when sales for the quarter plummet. Understanding this, we tend to see value in being morally vigilant in a crisis. Studies have shown that when we fear outbreak, we tend to be more judgmental when perceiving a breach of loyalty, break from the norm or failure to respect authority.(2)

What a leader can do

Spending a great deal of time in isolation whether from Covid-19 or in the silo of your department at work, people can get caught up in their own small world and forget that other people have different perspectives and experiences. When we notice a bias in ourselves or others we can “STOP” – discover there’s much more to know about a person, situation or organization than we initially thought. We can:

  • S – Slow down;
  • T – Take 3 deep breaths;
  • O – Observe our reaction and the feelings of others, check to see that you’re safe; and if everything is cool…
  • P – Proceed with curiosity and wonder

A solution in solidarity

“What prompted you to speak up?” I asked James. He explained that he felt hurt when he heard the customer blame Chinese people. But he slowed down, acknowledged his own feelings and recognized that the other guy was probably afraid too. So he offered a different perspective and hoped it would reassure him.

James told me he wonders if he’s just being self-righteous. But as we discussed it more, he realized that what he really wants is to be part of a society where everyone feels like they belong, where even his Chinese brother and sister have voices that are honored as much as his own.

Cultural intelligence helps us to slow down, acknowledge our own fear and take steps to stay safe, as well as empathize and recognize no one person is to blame for whatever we’re experiencing. This kind of compassion heals and enhances the health of our daily interactions as well as our on-going relationships within our homes and workplaces.                   -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Shoichet, C. (March 17, 2020). “Racism and xenophobia are on the rise as the coronavirus spreads.”
  2. Robson, D. (April 1, 2020) “The fear of coronavirus is changing our psychology.” BBC Future.
  3. Mar 31, 2020 “Coronavirus revives racist stereotypes against Chinese people and other minorities,” The Christian Science Monitor.
  4. Understanding unconscious bias: The Royal Society.
  5. Dwyer, C. (Sept 7, 2018) “12 common biases that affect how we make everyday decisions.” Psychology Today.