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A blog by Ryan Quinn, Robert Quinn, Shawn Quinn, and Amy Lemley

How do you stay positive when you think bias is working against you?

– By Schon Beechler

Yesterday, I posted a blog, Staying Positive While Failing Miserably, about my recent unfortunate experience teaching an executive program in India for the first time. On my long flight home, I had the time to reflect on the situation more fully and pen a letter to the faculty director the program, who was not onsite while I was teaching (excerpts copied below).

One question is still nagging me:  Was I a victim of bias? Although I have been an American woman working internationally in a male-dominated world for a long time, I have never felt (perhaps naively) that anything of major consequence that has happened to me was due to my gender or my nationality.  I don’t want to ignore my own role in all of this, but what if bias was the underlying cause? How do you stay positive when you feel that people are judging you negatively on things that are irrelevant (at least to your way of thinking)? And what, if anything, can you do about it? I’m struggling this this and would love hear your thoughts in the comment box below.

(excerpts from my email this morning to the program faculty director)

Dear Faulty Director,

I hope that this note finds you well. I am just back from the Executive Program and wanted to write to you, first, to apologize that my sessions did not go nearly as well as anticipated. I know that you had great faith in me, and based on previous experience, I did, too. Unfortunately for everyone, this first experience with the Executive Program group did not go smoothly.

The program director and I had a good debrief before I left and I also solicited feedback from the participants. In reflecting on what they had to say, as well as my previous experience, here’s a summary of the relevant facts and my best guess as to why this happened.

1. First, most of the material I taught is material that I have successfully delivered many times before and for which I have received excellent evaluations. I spent as much or more time preparing for these sessions and was felt focused, energetic and well-rested when I began teaching. I told the participants that I was there to serve them and that I was available over meals and after hours to meet with them on their personal cases or individual leadership challenges.

2. When the program director and I met at the end of the first day to debrief, we both thought that it had gone well. There were a few things that program director suggested tweaking (e.g. giving them more time to work in groups) but the suggestions were minor and we both felt happy with the day.  The program director solicited feedback at the gala dinner that evening and she did not get any negative feedback. However, by mid-day on day two, the group was unhappy enough to ask that their feedback be communicated to me and that I change course.

3. Immediately, I openly addressed the group and reminded them that my purpose was to make the sessions a valuable learning experience for them and so I therefore wanted to solicit their opinions and adapt my material to meet their needs. There were specific topics that they wanted covered in more depth and although I subsequently covered each of those topics to the seeming satisfaction of the person who brought up the topic, my responsiveness to their requests doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact.

4. One of the participants, a woman, who chatted with me on coffee break on the afternoon of the second day said that she thought my position was hard because all of the previous professors had used a similar style and pedagogy in the previous 9 days of the program and mine was different. And herein, I believe, is the major issue.

When looking at the program, talking with the participants, and with the program manager, I see that all of the other faculty in the program are Indian, have a certain similar style and approach, and are male. I have a facilitative style and, quite obviously, am a woman. I also am a newcomer to India and therefore lack the “insider” knowledge that all of the other faculty have. At the end of the day, I think that the problems were largely about teaching style. How much of that is due to my gender, my nationality, or my personality is unknown to me. What is curious, however, is that I have found my style to be effective in a large number of cultures and settings.

Part of it may be an “Indian” thing. I certainly did not have the same rapport with the participants that the other Indian faculty seemed to enjoy. I think there are a number of things that I could do, stylistically, to better meet the demands of  participants. At the same time, I think that you should find someone who more naturally has a similar style to everyone else teaching in the program. I think that this is a pity, since I think that people should be open to diversity and that the participants should be pushed to think for themselves, but you are running a business and I completely understand that.

I am deeply sorry and extremely disappointed by what happened this week. I feel terrible that I didn’t deliver in a way that any of us anticipated and that I put the entire program in jeopardy.

I’m happy to talk with you both further about this and get any additional thoughts you might have. What happened was unfortunate, and the best we can all do now is to learn from the experience and build on it  for the future.

With deep apologies,
Schon

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9 Responses to “How do you stay positive when you think bias is working against you?”

  1. Jan Elsner says:

    Schon
    I have no doubt that gender bias is part of what occurred. A female in authority, using a facilitative style. Knowing what we do about bias, we know you couldnt shift their bias in a single teaching event. It requires a state of mind I know you would have been working towards creating with your sessions, and then an experience that is cognitively dissonant, plus an opportunity to process that experience. The latter two require a lot of permission I doubt you were given coming in after a pattern of delivery has been set by others. Sadly, the overriding need to be ‘liked’ and have your teaching ‘liked’ sometimes gets in the way of such learning,.
    So the question for me is how to gain insight from your experience that helps us to teach in a way that easily recognises, accepts and works with such biases: Working with bias rather than butting up against it or wanting to change it.

  2. Phillip Auckland says:

    Hi Schon,

    My learning in the last few years is to show gratitude for failures, and to understand that everything we are presented with in life is mirroring to us what we need to learn about ourselves and giving us an opportunity for growth. Believe me, I have been given lots of opportunities to grow since doing CSEP113 with you in 2002, and have sometimes taken multiple hits over the head before I got the messages.

    For what my observations are worth:

    The question I would ask myself is ‘how much was I delivering my program that has worked really well and served me well elsewhere albeit one that is facilitative in style, and how much was I able to read the energy in the room and adapt my style to meet the energy, again albeit that you did adapt the content in line with what you were being told in words by the students?’

    I see two sources of addressing the issue:
    - I am sure you will do some work on the culture and will have sources to tap to help you understand Indian culture.
    - The second is more difficult to do. As a facilitator you are an energy worker. You are familiar with and comfortable working with US culture energy, and have had great success reading the energy in many other cultures. I suspect that real energy workers such as Shamans may be able to help you with tools to add to your facilitation toolbox more than western educators.

    The first solution to amend your style to the Indian culture to me is conforming to a cultural norm. The second solution lets you understand the energy behind a cultural norm, and with deep understanding may allow you to take your program to a new level, not just in India, but everywhere you teach.

    Schon, most of all may I suggest you dont punish yourself. You are an educator who pushes boundaries. You are out forging new realms. My challenge to you is to be grateful for this new opportunity to take your program to new heights by deepening your understanding of energetics as a facilitators tool. Gratitude is one of the best sources of manifestation of solutions from unexpected quarters.

    If you read this and it sounds like gibberish, then smoke a joint and have another go.
    :-)

    Sincerely…Phillip

  3. admin says:

    Jan and Phil,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful posts. In a strange way, I think that this is a great “case” and am curious how you and other readers might suggest that someone else going into a situation like this might prepare in advance and respond should something like this happen to them.

    With many thanks,
    Schon

  4. Ryan says:

    Schon,
    I always love how courageous you are about sharing your struggles as well as your triumphs and asking others for feedback. I also think that it is useful to clarify what situation you are trying to deal with. For example is your question a past-oriented one, such as “Why didn’t this work?” “What could I have done differently in that situation?” Is it a present-oriented one, such as “What can I do now to help the people involved?” Is it a future-oriented one, such as “What can I do in the future to anticipate bias in advance and handle it in a way that makes the experience constructive and uplifting?” Or is it something else entirely?

    I say this because the experience you had is such a rich one, with so many overlapping parts, that it is easy to begin addressing one issue and find yourself dragged into another issue without ever having addressed or answered the first issue. This is one of the reasons why, when we wrote lift, we made the unit of analysis the “situation”: because the situation is something we define ourselves and can address explicitly, but we can also re-define in overlapping and inter-twining ways. We can try to figure out how to be a positive force in one situation, we can change our definition of the situation, we can be fluid, but it is always critical to be clear, I think, about what situation it is that we are talking about, or we will lose track of “What result we want to create.” For example, if the result I think I want to create is to help the director ensure that the program continues to run with maximum positive impact, but then as we talk that result through, I discover that I cannot do that with full engagement until I understand what operating in a world with bias means to me, I can explicitly table the program discussion, and come back to it later, while I deal with the bias situation for myself. In the spirit of “Lift” and of “Competing Values” more generally, an approach like this allows you to keep the competing values of fluidity and clarity in productive tension as you go through the learning process.

    I hope this makes sense. I think it is easier to discuss in person that to write about.

    Happy 4th,
    Ryan

  5. admin says:

    Ryan,

    Thanks for your thoughts and I love what you say about needing to understand what result one is trying to create. That’s a really powerful insight.

    You are right – in this instance, it is a complicated one and there are many facets that I am trying to address. I think that on a very personal level, I am trying to make sense out of the failure in a way that I can understand what I might do differently in the future. I made the decision before I left India that I would return in January to run a three day course and I want it to be transformational for the participants.

    And, at the same time, I am hoping that my colleagues at the university and I can use the learnings in a way that could positively impact other programs so that both the participants and the faculty wouldn’t have to repeat this again.

    And finally, I was hoping that by writing the blogs I could help others who might face failure in their own lives. I am hoping that by sharing my experience, others will see that this is something that happens to all of us – regardless of how many years of experience we may have and regardless of how successful we might be.

    It’s not easy to share failure publicly. My ego didn’t want to and I almost hit delete before posting my blog – it scared me to put it out into the world. And at the same time, when I looked at it, I thought that if sharing this experience could help even one person, it was something I needed to to. At the end of the day, my goal is to have a positive impact on the world and sometimes it just doesn’t happen the way you plan it.

  6. Senthil says:

    Dear Ms Schon,

    I do understand the situation you were in and appreciate the confidence with which you have shared the experience which was troubling you.

    I am in the learning and development field since 1992 and gone thru few situations like this. Hence my response here.

    Yes. gender and being ‘not an Indian’ may have some influence. But we are used to have more women facilitators and experts from outside India conducting programmes. I also personally feel that they are in a way advantageous to the facilitator.

    There is no indication in your posting about the nature of the programme – whether it is a short duration executive development programme or a long duration educational programme for executives (leading to the award of degree/diploma). Also there is a mention about a participant saying “all of the previous professors had used a similar style and pedagogy in the previous 9 days of the program and mine was different” and I do not find any elaboration on the method they have used.

    Keeping these two in mind, I presume that there might be a mismatch between what the participants expected and what they got from you particularly in relation to the method of teaching used.

    Of course, there is an indicator for this from your posting itself, when you said, “There were a few things that program director suggested tweaking (e.g. giving them more time to work in groups) but the suggestions were minor and we both felt happy with the day”.

    This where the culture plays a role. The programme director had either sensed or was told (‘strongly’ !) by the participants that the methodology need to be more of group work. This normally is communicated in the Indian context in a general manner (most of the time as a passing comment) – not very emphatically. This perhaps made you to take as a a ‘minor’ feedback mainly due to the way in which it was told to you.

    These minor comments are very valuable ones in the Indian context as we camouflage feedback which are negative in nature as if they are not that important.

    One can frequently hear comments like the following in a tea break/lunch break: ” …Your session was great. I learned a lot. One thing is that little bit of humor/jokes would really make the session lively. But this is not important and your input is really valuable….”.

    The message is loud and clear : ‘Unless you tell few jokes or conduct a small ice breaker which we enjoy, …….’

    I need not complete the sentence !

    Moreover there are many who come to training/learning events without clear objectives or focus because they are nominated for such programmes. Hence participants may feel like

    > a ‘prisoner’ – trying to escape the session
    > a ‘vacationer’ – trying to relax from the routine so the work pressures
    > a ‘tourist’ – trying to learn some thing on many topics (not deeper knowledge on anything and who need variety
    > a ‘jester’ – interested in telling or hearing a joke and all are laughing
    > an ‘expert’ – I know what you are going to tell and let me see how ‘good’ you are ! and
    > an ‘explorer’ – really curious on learning.

    We need to handle all these types and one method never suits all. That is the challenge of conducting sessions/programmes here in India. Sometimes we may not like this or may not be able to adapt to these expectations and the result is ‘feeling uncomfortable’ inside.

    Recently, while teaching a course at a reputed institution, I got such a bad rating to the extent “never recommended for any subsequent programme”. The reason is I insisted them to be ‘on time’ to the sessions !

    Reflecting on the experience, though I felt bad inside (emotional side), I realised that I have done the right thing particularly when they came late wantedly. In fact one of the other comment was “we have learned how to work under a bad boss”.

    Great ! What a learning I have created within them !

    I really felt happy afterwards..the Institute still calls me.

    I learned from my professor from the department of psychology, university of madras, India….”Senthil, never be harsh on you. Everything is a learning experience”.

    I believe in it.

  7. admin says:

    Dear Senthil,

    Thank you so much for taking the time and having the courage to share with me your own experiences teaching in India. Your point about how feedback is communicated and how seriously to take “minor” comments is extremely important to know. My experiences in the US with Indians have led me to believe that they are generally quite straight-forward and rather blunt so this is an important learning for me. I also had to chuckle to myself because I also required people to be on time to the sessions and took a fairly serious stance toward the class and the learning opportunity – I hadn’t considered that this could have been part of the problem. In any event, I so appreciate your generosity in sharing your experience and wisdom as it will be so helpful when I next try this again.

  8. Joel says:

    Schon-
    Thank you for this fascinating insight into the mechanics of a failure that you must have felt miserably about. I find Senthil’s comments about the nature of negative feedback as somewhat specious, your having spent a great deal of time in Japanese culture and understanding the nature of “indirect” communication about personal concerns. The bias question is a difficult and rather slippery one. My partner also feels these biases in the workplace, and frequently expressed these concerns to me. I have generally tended to place little stock in them, but have come to more deeply appreciate that as world culture becomes smaller and smaller, human nature is to pull away and become rather more insular. Whether this translates to actual bias is something no one can know for certain, but your careful observations notwithstanding, I feel it might be dangerous to base your conclusions on this experience. There are, indeed, a myriad of ways that this could have gone wrong for you, and I am always extremely conscious of the potential for any clients experience to go south. Having lived through several, I do what I can to remain positive about the contributions that are well received, and to learn from that bad ones. And by the way, I hope that your “cut and paste” of the letter did not include the salutation as “Dear Faulty Director”. That could have also elicited a very negative response.

  9. admin says:

    Joel,
    I appreciate your thoughts and I agree with you – one of the challenges with both success and failure is that there are so many things in play – we don’t usually bother to tease them all out in successes but rather have a natural tendency to attribute them to our own actions.

    I understand your caution about basing my conclusions on this experience. It is one of many, many experiences in a variety of contexts – more data to help to understand the various dimensions of the situation. No group is the same and no client engagement is ever the same, even when working with the same people. It is one of the joys and frustrations of the kind of work that we do.

    What I find helpful in putting my failure “out there” is the gift of having so many people look at it through their own lenses, each of which offers insights and possibilities for understanding and, I hope, a higher probability of success next time I teach in India.

    And please don’t worry, I eliminated all of the names in my email to the faculty director as well as the name of the institution for confidentiality reasons. The faculty director is an ex-colleague and someone whom I have known for many years and with whom I have a good relationship, characterized by mutual respect.

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