Why you should challenge your preconceptions

Preconceptions ahead
Look before you make a leap of judgement

“Josh? He’s lazy, watch out for him”

“Elizabeth is such a great performer, you should ask her to help you with this”

“Bob just complains all the time, he’s a waste of space”

Second hand information is freely passed amongst the corridors of many workplaces. When you start a new leadership role, it’s tempting to take the opinions of others on board quickly because you are trying to fill vast gaps in your information, quickly.

You want to know who the high performers are and who may be a problem. You want to know who you can depend on and who should be avoided or managed carefully.

The problem is, filling your own information gaps with the opinions of other people and failing to challenge your preconceptions is fraught with danger. It’s not only the negative opinions of others that can be a problem, but also the positive views. Before you know it, you’ve formed a preconception of somebody else, which may or may not be correct.

Why you must challenge your preconceptions

Freely adopting other opinions anchors your perception

In negotiation, there is a concept called “anchoring”, which is a human tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information offered. For example, if you are negotiating salary, you may start with a higher figure than you think is really possible to achieve. This can have the effect of “anchoring” the negotiation at that point – and the result is often that the salary discussion takes place relative to that first point, as opposed to the lower end of the pay scale. This is why many people suggest to state your salary figure first, rather than letting the other party do so.

The same thing happens with opinions in the workplace. If the first thing you hear about Elizabeth is that she is fantastic, that’s your default position and any adjustments to that perception will happen relative to “fantastic”. Likewise, if you hear that Josh is lazy and take it on board, then your starting position is to think he’s no good.

Believing other opinions too easily can put your team offside

Imagine that someone just doesn’t like Josh. They tell you he’s lazy. You start to believe it, because you don’t have any other information. Then this preconception starts to affect your behaviour towards Josh and he picks up on it. He thinks you don’t like him, and you don’t even know him.

In this situation, Josh is likely to become disengaged as he feels unfairly treated and who knows, he may not even be lazy!

The opposite situation can be problematic too. Elizabeth is a superstar, so you start treating her like one. What is the rest of your team going to think of this favouritism? They’ll probably feel slighted and may lose motivation, which means it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everybody else becomes unmotivated and sluggish, so Elizabeth is likely to appear as the star performer.

Changing your perception is difficult, and takes longer

If you take on board other opinions and have developed a certain perception of Josh, he is in for a tough life at work. He is going to have to work extra hard to fight back against that preconception and to change your mind. The only problem is, everything he does is likely to be scrutinised in the light of “his laziness” and it becomes a hopeless cause.

When Josh leaves early to pick up his child from daycare, “he doesn’t prioritise work”. When Elizabeth does the same, “she really respects her work-life balance”.

If an employee in your team is in this unfortunate situation because of a preconception of their behaviour or ability, it will be a long hard road for them to change your perception. The result is that they may opt to leave your team rather than enter a prolonged battle to change your mind. You may just have alienated an employee that could have been an asset.

How to challenge your preconceptions

When you don’t have information to form a reliable opinion yourself, get three data points

Sometimes you simply don’t have the chance to observe your team members or colleagues as closely as you’d like to. In these cases, it’s tempting to just grab somebody else’s third-hand opinion and use it as your own.

Instead, wait it out. Collect opinions from at least three people who do have the opportunity to work with the person you are wondering about. Three data points are better than one.

If somebody close to you is trying to influence your opinion of somebody else, they are less likely to succeed if you canvas multiple sources to try to uncover the truth of the matter.

Be skeptical of people’s motives

When you hear somebody rubbish someone else’s work ethic or credibility, be very wary of taking this opinion for yourself.

You always need to question the motives of people who would try to influence your opinions of others. Are they in competition with the other person? Do they feel threatened by their experience or skill?

You don’t need to act as if every comment is part of a complex murder mystery, but it still pays to remain as impartial as you can, and to actually put some thought into what may be driving the behaviour of the person giving you the information.

Preconceptions can be very dangerous. When you’ve just taken on a role and are trying to understand the situation, you need to be able to take a step back and think clearly about what people are telling you. When you’re new, this is when you are at your most vulnerable to being influenced by other opinions, because you desperately want to make sense of your environment so you can start performing your role effectively.

Remember, if your perception is anchored a certain way, it’s going to be a long way coming back. Be sure to challenge your preconceptions before it’s too late.

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