About Face: Helping Leaders Avoid Prejudgment

By Patricia Steiner

I can tell within the first few seconds of seeing a student in my class, from their face, their clothes, where they sit in class, what their final grade will be and sometimes I’m actually right.

– College Professor: Initial impressions of the classroom.

As a teacher and designer of leadership classes, I am often asked to speak at organizations around the world about topics dealing with business, leadership and learning that relate to honesty, ethics, diversity issues, and self-awareness.

My approach to problems of misconduct of all kinds begins with the root cause: a lack of understanding of self and a resistance to facing who we are and how we think. This is what I endeavor to put forward in my teaching and writing, with leaders, my students and my various audiences regardless of their life or career aspirations. We need to start with ourselves if we want to make progress.

This perspective posits that we are not always aware of the primary or reflexive thoughts that dictate our human habit of prejudging or putting people into “boxes.” Only by being aware of this thinking can we push it aside and let our secondary, reflective, more well-developed thoughts take over, allowing us to find out who someone really is, or get a true assessment of a situation, regardless of the “box” we first created. This is important in life, learning, and relationship. This is important in being a successful leader.


  1. Blaming others doesn’t work. We need to look to ourselves for answers. We have complete authority only over ourselves, an authority that endows us with the capability to address and direct our own thoughts and emotions.
  2. Many of us are not aware of the role we play in issues of deception, discrimination and other forms of misconduct.
  3. Discriminatory social justice issues: aspects of human rights related to dignity and equality that lead to oppression based on race, sexual preference, age, religion or gender are a part of the resulting problem and not the root cause.

A student I hadn’t met had scheduled a phone meeting with me three times and had blown me off. I hated him for it. He was not going to do well. I struggled to give him impartial grades. When we finally did talk, I assumed he was from some other country and I feared he would be disrespectful and manipulative. He probably couldn’t care less about my time. I did not like him. Then when I met him face-to-face for the first time and I saw his facial expression and enthusiasm, I liked him. This was a wakeup call for me to be vigilant on my own prejudging behavior.

– College Professor, Online Class Observation

When we see something or hear something that requires a quick response, can we prevent ourselves from immediately making a judgment? Often this process in our mind happens unconsciously. Who thinks they know how old I am? Why was that your guess? How did you come to that conclusion? What information brought you to that number? What about my background? What about my level of education? You probably just answered all of these questions without knowing me. This is known as primary or reflexive thinking. We need to start here. This is what humans do. We prejudge. We are experts at it. This is one of the strongest, most well-developed functions of the human brain. It is all taking place every minute of every day in everyone.

The neural network

This neural phenomenon is also known as pattern matching. Our brains are expert at pattern matching. This activity is so powerful that it is being imitated in life-critical artificial intelligence projects such as self-driving cars. Let’s think about how this works in our own lives by using the self-driving car as an example. The self-driving car learns to recognize a set of circumstances and from the conditions it has learned, it moves forward or doesn’t … it signals … it turns … all based on something that it has experienced (has in its memory) from a previous situation it has encountered. This is exactly how the human brain functions. Is this automatic pattern matching activity a possible root cause for our challenges in dealing with diversity issues? Does this thought process always work well for us? Do self-driving cars have accidents?

Much like the self-driving car, the human brain makes decisions based on experiences. The primary associations we harbor in our minds cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people, based on superficial characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age and appearance that do not accurately tell us about the person in front of us. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime often beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages we take in from our environment. (In addition to life experiences, the media and news programming are often cited origins of prejudicial and discriminatory associations.) For example, how does growing up in a small Midwest farming town that is mostly white-Christian and not interacting with people of other races, creeds and cultures affect the pattern matching built up in the mind?

Primary thinking is not all bad especially if you are, for example, reacting to a wild animal that is loose in front of you, where you need to be able to make a life critical decision in a way that involves immediate reaction, decision and instinct to save yourself. It is no mystery that we do this and do this well. It has become a part of what makes us successful and helps us survive.

But is primary thinking always accurate? One way to look at the problem is that we use this even when not running from danger. At the same time, we have not learned to recognize this skill for what it is: a superficial evaluation. Because we are not aware of this behavior and its shallow, impulsive nature, we often use primary thought and pattern matching exclusively as the source of our decision-making, which can result in inaccurate assessment. We are always running from wild animals.

It is important to be aware of the limitations of this thinking and discover for ourselves when primary thought works and when we need to discard it for something deeper. Those of us who are aware, who realize that we prejudge in this way, stand a chance at pushing primary thoughts aside for the sake of finding out what is really in front of us, what is deeper and more precise: reflective rather than reflexive.

Sit quietly and listen to your brain …

This takes practice. Let’s think about how aware we are of our pattern-matching behavior. Sit quietly and listen to your brain at work. Those voices in your head, the whirring of thoughts—most of that is primary thinking from stimulation in your neural network. What makes us stop, start, turn and run from a wild tiger, is based on this primary thought coupled with past experience. Is this reaction and experience enough to make accurate assessments?

If a self-driving car sees anything it doesn’t recognize that is in its path, it will slow down or stop. It doesn’t think further than what it knows from its past algorithms. It doesn’t have the ability to reason or reassess on the spot. But we do have this ability. It looks like a wild tiger but is it? It is often that we don’t recognize that our brain has determined our actions before we have had a chance to apply some more reasonable and reflective analysis than what our pattern-matching primary thought has provided. Let’s be honest observers of our own behavior. We all categorize. We can change the world and we can make progress by taking responsibility for ourselves, our part and our own personal contribution to the problem.

After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in a every possible setting at every possible hour.

—Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Lifelong learning and development depends on accurate and meaningful self-observations about ourselves and others. Developing our self-awareness and our decision-making process is important in getting us past the surface, the reflexive and the primary. It is a critical concern for anyone who cares about building authentic relationships, values people and wants to overcome prejudice. We need to start with ourselves to make progress. Some researchers go so far as to refer to self-awareness and reflection as some of the most essential skills for learning and leadership, requiring the ability to get past primary thought to access the current and the new in order to accurately synthesize information, correct misconceptions, ask probing questions and draw truthful inferences.

By monitoring and controlling our own personal bias and primary thinking, we might be able to put an end to prejudgment and discrimination of all kinds. We all prejudge. Our brains are wired to do this. It comes from inception, when fight or flight instinct was a matter of survival. Today, it is still a source of survival and success even though the terms and conditions of the danger most of us face have changed. If, through self-awareness, we start to understand and take responsibility for our tendency to prejudge, we stand a chance of making a powerful change in ourselves that can result in more effective learning and leadership, better understanding of our environment, and stronger relationships.

Patricia Steiner is president and CEO of venturesphere advisors and teaches business and philosophy classes at Brandeis University. She has a grant from Brandeis to research methods of dealing with diversity.

Related Posts:

The Impact of the Self-Awareness Process on Learning and Leading



Comments are closed.