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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, STEM

Unconscious Bias: Why Is It Always “We’ll Take Over Now” After The Heavy Lifting Is Done?


harrystruman_who-gets-the-creditThere are days when it seems like some things never change. No work place is perfect. There will always be challenges with equipment, operating systems, and supplies. However, when you add humans to the mix, you can get just about anything!

President Harry Truman got it right when he said: It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.

This past week I received a combination of emails and a phone call from a friend who was at her wits end with a few members of her organization. She had spent more than a year of tackling a long-standing (we are talking years if not over a decade of dysfunction) problem in her organization that included identifying the root cause, identifying potential solutions, selecting the best option, and implementing the fix. Never mind the entire time she was working to resolve the problem, she was told several times by others:

  • We tried that before and it didn’t work.
  • It can’t be fixed.
  • It will cost too much to replace.

She convinced herself that she would not be deterred by these nay-sayers. She persevered without any support from her manager or peers and was able to create a working system that was not only functional but more efficient than the old one. At this point she said: And Vi, you wouldn’t believe what happened next?

Vi said: Before you tell me what happened, I want to share a conversation that I had years ago with a co-worker. He is now deceased, but his words will live on forever in my conscious.

Vince (not his actual name) stormed into my office fuming. His face was beet red. I asked, “What’s wrong?” He shared that he was coming from his weekly managers’ meeting. When the opportunity came to give a few status updates for each department, one of the items on his list was the software (sw) install of a form reading program that had been written to extract hand-written data on annual survey forms that his program sends out each year.

As the program requirements changed over time, the number of annual surveys grew to a point that his group was struggling to meet the deadline to have them processed. Electronic forms were easy to input and read. However, more time was being dedicated each year to extracting data from hand-written forms – the reason behind developing this new system. When he presented the problem to this group, no one had any ideas of how to solve the problems and all but one said it could not be fixed. Through tedious research, asking questions, and talking to anyone who would listen, he and his staff decided to hire a contractor and write a new sw program to capture the hand-written data.

It was slow going at first, however, as they learned more about their problem and how the new sw worked, more of the bugs and data errors were scrubbed out and the number of handwritten surveys that could be read increased on a weekly basis.

Vince had already given a few updates to stakeholders for his program and they were impressed with the results. A representative from city government had been in to talk to him about what he was doing, and he had fielded a few calls from out-of-state organizations that were thinking of implementing a similar application. And then it happened!

Directly following the meeting, Vince’s manager asked if he would hang around for a few minutes. After the others had exited the room, his manager told him that he was going to reassign the annual survey to one of the other managers. Almost in shock, Vince asked “Why?” His manager responded: Well, two of the managers thought that the work to complete this sw overhaul was taking too long and it appeared that he nor his people didn’t know what they were doing?

At this point, I said, “Come again?” Let me get this straight. You brought a problem to their table and asked for input and help. No one had any answers and all but one told you nothing could be done. You and your team figured out a solution to this growing problem, developed a sw package, tested it, and most of the bugs in it have been eliminated. After all of your hard work and effort, the response is you don’t know what you are doing and we’ll take over now?”

The unbelievable part of the conversation for my friend was how similar Vince’s story was to her own experience. My response: My dear, these are not new stories. These stories and the behaviors that go along with them are as old as the hills and have been around for a very long time.

What should not be missed is that much of Vince’s story is not unconscious bias. The actions and behavior are very conscious and intentional!! The unconscious part is the culture of the organization that promotes this type of thinking, believes that it is acceptable, and allows things like this to happen!

Company-cultureThe work place has become more competitive over time. Years ago, the work of managers and supervisors was to perform administrative functions and duties. More and more, they are also expected to make a contribution to the bottom line – i.e. do real work. When managers are tasked to supervise others or a team, it is important to acknowledge individual contributions as well as the work of the group or team. There will always be credit stealers, however, good managers can sift them out like flour. Most credit stealers will have difficulty explaining the idea or the system that they profess to have created and are subject matter experts of.

A good manager will never take credit for an idea or work that is not her’s, nor should she have to. In most cases, creating an environment where a novel idea or solution can be generated speaks volume to a manager’s skills and influence with her employees. Doing otherwise puts the manager at risk of being in a situation to be unable to attract new employees to her group, and the employees in the group will be anxious to find a new home.

Last, and certainly not least, too many organizations have lost good employees – women, persons of color, and white men – because of shenanigans like this. Organizations must be on the look out for this type of behavior and be prepared to nip it in the bud and snuff it out when it does occur. Anything else promotes a future undesirable organizational culture that will be more stubborn, unwieldy, and even more difficult to change.

Post Note: If you like this post, there’s more content at A Bridge for Business & STEM: www.bridgebizstem.wordpress.com.



About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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