How susceptible are you to people’s looks?

I always learn a lot sitting on trains. I like watching people, what they do and how they interact with each other.

Last week I sat on a train and watched a con in progress. After stopping at one station the seat opposite me was taken by a woman in her seventies, glasses perched on the tip of her nose, grey hair swept up in a neat bun, comfortable and somewhat frumpy clothes and a lovely smile. A bit of a stereotype, but she looked like someone’s favourite grandma.

About ten minutes later, the conductor came through asking for people to show him their unchecked tickets. He took mine, checked it and then and looked at her. But rather than hand a ticket over, she just smiled at him – a lovely friendly smile, accompanied by steady, reassuring eye contact.

From her reaction, he clearly understood her message which was that she had been on the train a while and he had already checked her ticket. But still he hesitated, clearly not recalling her, but she again looked him in the eye and smiled reassuringly. He then moved off and down the carriage.

I noted that she avoided looking at me for the remainder of the journey.

Who would have thought? When I think of fare dodgers my biases lead me towards thinking about young people who fancy ‘chancing it’, or otherwise people who look a bit rough around the edges. My fellow passenger fit none of my expectations about fare dodgers. And she clearly fooled the conductor too. She said not a word, but her body language conveyed her clear message, sufficient to make him doubt his own memory.

I didn’t know whether to be impressed or outraged at her dishonesty. And clearly this was a practised manoeuvre, certainly not the first time she had done it.

However, watching this play out did serve as a timely reminder of how our biases (positive and negative) so often strongly influence our thinking at work. This then impairs our otherwise good judgement.

With regards to today’s conductor, he was drawn in by her smile and reassured by her eye contact. He stood no chance!

So, given my train conductor’s positive bias towards my fellow traveller who he perceived to be honest …

Who at work do you tend to favour above others? What is the root cause of this favouritism?

Who at work do you seldom give the benefit of the doubt to? Do you know why you are less trusting with this person?

Can you identify one bias you have that sometimes impairs your good judgement? And which in turn could negatively impact your work performance?

If you’d like to find out more about unconscious bias we run interactive workshops on the topic, that we can tailor specifically to your organisation if you would like to find out some more information then please click here. Alternatively, we sometimes run seminars on the topic – our next seminars will be held in Ringwood and Thames Valley. To express interest in either of these locations, please email us.

1 Comment

  1. Diana Linden 24 September, 2015

    This seems like serious unconscious bias! She ‘looked like someone’s favourite grandma’ therefore she was bound to be a fare dodger. Ageist and very sexist remark, and the fact that she did not return eye contact was because for some reason you made her feel uncomfortable. Maybe it was an accusatory look?

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