Grabbing the Controls

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Have you ever believed something was a certain way, acted as if you were right, and, voila!, your belief came true? If that initial belief is a positive one, these self-fulfilling prophecies can be great, but, what if, on the other hand, it is negative or misguided?

Take for example the promising black fighter pilots talked about in the Washington Post. A self-fulfilling prophecy didn’t work out very well for them. In fact, they flunked out of flight school in disproportionate numbers because of a belief (a bias) held by their flight instructors.

An investigation revealed that some instructors believed that the black pilots – across the board – lacked the skills to fly safely. As a result of this bias and, in a misguided effort to save themselves and the airplane, the instructors grabbed the controls prematurely, thereby depriving the pilots of the chance to show their capability.

These instructors held the bias, “Black pilots can’t quite cut it,” and, without realizing just what they were doing, found a way to prove to themselves that their belief was correct.

Most of us are in no position to grab anyone’s controls, but, unfortunately, there are other ways to make a negative bias a reality. Coaching is a good example. Might our unconscious biases lead us to coach members of one group differently from another? In turn, might that coaching difference produce a different and possibly negative result?

This is exactly what happened to a Filipino nurse named Susan whom I met when conducting a diversity/inclusion needs assessment at a New Jersey medical center. One issue the client was trying to sort out was the fact that the Filipino nurses on staff were performing less well than the rest of the team. Susan, born and trained in the Philippines, felt she had an explanation. As she put it, “Nobody ever tells us what we are doing wrong. I think they think it will hurt our feelings or maybe they just assume we can’t get it right. Sometimes it makes me feel like just giving up.”

Hmmmm…Now, I can’t be inside the minds and hearts of Susan’s supervisors, but an educated guess tells me that the odds are good that an unconscious bias had teamed up with the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy to create exactly what management did not want: poor performing nurses.

Perhaps the supervisors harbored the belief – conscious or unconscious – that the Filipino nurses were somehow less competent than the rest. Perhaps, too, that belief led to the conclusion that there was no point in honest and productive coaching? The nurses, like the black fighter pilots, weren’t – the bias concluded – as good as the rest.

Unconscious bias and self-fulfilling prophecy – a dangerous combination to say the least.


© copyright 2017 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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