Life doesn't always give us a chance to practice for a role before the curtain opens. We have to say yes first, and learn our lines later.
This is especially true for individuals listening, learning and leading change in their communities. Research indicates that friendliness and democratic values are useful tools for challenging racism but how often do we use them?
Brian Lowery, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, goes so far as to suggest that racial stereotypes that are subconscious may be reversible. He suggests that people may change feelings toward another ethnic group following brief interactions with likeable role models who promote egalitarian or democratic values.
Subconscious or hidden biases toward other racial groups often surface without our knowledge, Lowery's research suggests. While conducting word-association exercises, he found that research subjects more quickly associated the faces of African-Americans with negative words, and the faces of whites with positive words.
However, if he exposed the participants to appealing African-Americans or white Americans who displayed democratic attitudes, such as an anti-racism T-shirt, these associations or hidden biases began to shift. The groups' associations about blacks were then less negative. In an interesting twist, Lowery tried the experiment again using an unfriendly, though egalitarian, role model. This time the participants did not experience the same shift in attitudes.
What might we conclude from this fascinating research?
Well, it certainly seems to suggest that the messenger matters when it comes to delivering anti-racism messages. I have said often in this column that sarcasm and angry voices seldom persuade others to adopt our views. Instead, we need to wear our best smiles and exhibit compassionate attitudes.
We might also conclude that likable people can be effective communicators when it comes to promoting justice and inclusiveness in the workplace. CEOs contemplating new diversity initiatives should file away this fact. "When we like or identify with people, we're more likely to emulate their attitudes and behaviors," Lowery explains.
Lowery also has found that many research subjects are not aware of their own racial biases. They are often uncomfortable when confronted with results that suggest that code words may prompt them to respond negatively to a racial group. In another study, he examined the subtle effects of racial stereotypes upon the penal system. He asked Los Angeles police and probation officers to make judgments about a hypothetical adolescent of unknown race who had allegedly either shoplifted or assaulted a peer.
Some officers were subliminally exposed to words associated with African-Americans: ghetto, homeboy, dreadlocks. These messages were flashed on a rapidly flashing computer screen so that the officers took in the information subliminally. The remainder of the group did not receive this "priming."
Officers absorbing the subliminal messages attributed more negative traits and greater culpability to the hypothetical offenders, and they endorsed harsher punishments. Lowery theorizes that the racial priming beforehand may have prompted them to begin seeing a neutral situation in racial terms.
So there's a caution here, as well as a lesson.
Be mindful of the movies you watch and the people you choose as friends. Priming affects us more than we might think. It can lead us down under into the land of bias-based decision-making.
The lesson? It is not often we think of likability as a quality required for diversity training and change leadership. Perhaps, we should.
If you want to influence your workplace, change starts with you.
Photo Credit and Caption: Jellybean people at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia