When Appearances are Deceiving and Why We Need to Look Beyond the Surface

Have you ever spent precious time looking for something you needed growing more frustrated, even exasperated when you could not find it because you knew that thing should be where you expected it to be?! Well, that has happened to me at least twice recently. And, because of its frequency, it caused me to think […]

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Have you ever spent precious time looking for something you needed growing more frustrated, even exasperated when you could not find it because you knew that thing should be where you expected it to be?! Well, that has happened to me at least twice recently. And, because of its frequency, it caused me to think a little deeper about the implications of not finding something because that something did not look the way I thought it should look or how I expected it to look in my mind’s eye.

The first time happened a few weeks ago when I was traveling for work. I arrived at my hotel late in the evening anxious to take a soothing shower before hitting the sack to prepare for a very full next day. I could not, for the life of me, find the soap. Yet, past experiences taught me that the soap should be in my hotel bathroom either in a flat cardboard box or a beautiful paper wrapping on the sink and/or in the shower.

I thought I was going crazy as all hotels provide their guests with soap! I called the front desk frustrated. They apologized. They sent someone up to deliver a bar of soap. Imagine my surprise when I was handed soap in an unusual, rather tall pyramid-shaped cardboard box, one exactly like the box already in my bathroom which I had wrongly assumed was a shower cap or vanity kit. The soap had been there all along! It just did not appear in the shape or packaging I expected! And, because it looked different, I had not taken the time or effort to examine it further to ascertain whether it would or could meet my needs.

The same thing happened last week when I arrived home from another work-related trip (I have to stop traveling so much, but that is another story altogether). The next morning I took a shower, reached for my deodorant in the medicine cabinet, and did not find it. From past experience, I was expecting a white container with a lime green top. I immediately thought my youngest daughter had once again stolen my toiletries. Frustrated, I dried myself off, grudgingly traipsed across the hall, searched her bathroom, to no avail. Again, I grew more frustrated.

Guess what? When I opened the medicine cabinet a second time, after briefly remembering my hotel soap fiasco, the deodorant was right there all along. Instead of purchasing my normal type, my husband had bought another brand with different exterior coloring and branding. I was not expecting different packaging, so I had overlooked it.

I give these two anecdotes not to demonstrate the feeble mind of a weary traveler, but because they illustrate the deeper issue of how preconceived notions and bias can and sometimes does color our actions in the workplace particularly with respect to recruiting, hiring, evaluating or providing feedback to applicants or employees. Based on our own personal backgrounds and experiences, we have certain notions about the exterior “packaging” that a successful candidate, new hire or employee should possess, and when they fail to meet our preconceived notions, the results can be unfortunate at best and disastrous in a worse case scenario.

We tend to look for the characteristics our own personal experiences demand we find, and when we don’t see them packaged in the way we expected, we assume they do not exist or cannot meet our needs. In other words, the candidate is too soft-spoken and could never be the hard charging lawyer our client’s need. Or the employee just had a baby and surely does not want to travel or is now unwilling or unable to work the number of hours required to make partner. Or we don’t recruit from that law school because it is not a top tier school or we cannot hire that law student because surely s/he will never be successful at a big firm if they were not a member of law review. Or, we assume a minority lawyer will not be a successful lawyer because s/he made a mistake whereas majority lawyers are given the benefit of the doubt and the mistake is just that, a mistake that does not impugn the person’s ability or overall skillset.

We overlay our own cultural experiences and backgrounds onto our expectations in the talent management process and sometimes our perception of the external packaging gets in the way of us digging a little deeper to ascertain if a candidate and/or employee has what it takes to be successful in our workplace. We must simply take the time to pause and look deeper to interrupt our own biases about how someone should look, sound or act or what school they should come from before making crucial decisions about that person’s abilities or skillset. In other words, digging a little deeper just might help you to not overlook the soap or the deodorant.

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