Leaders need to make themselves aware of filtered assumptions which may “colour” the way they see and evaluate people.

Within the first half an hour of birth a zebra has memorised its mother’s unique pattern of stripes. This is called imprinting and is an essential survival mechanism in a herd of animals whose stripes otherwise present visual confusion. Our “imprinting” occurs as our life experiences socialise us into patterns of thinking – ways of seeing the world. They create filters, or lenses, through which we see the world around us and the people in it. The impact is…

…they cause us to evaluate things with pre-existing filtered assumptions.

It was, in large part, working in Nepal which led me to the thought that we also have a caste system in our society. It is not as obvious as that of Nepal, nor does it seem to have the same devastating impact on those deemed to be at the bottom. Never-the-less it is equally real and has the potential to seriously derail leaders and teams.

The untouchable caste in Nepal, the dalit, is the lowest caste and within the dalits it is the Badi who are at the very bottom, simply as a consequence of the lottery of their birth. The children born into this level of society are predestined to low levels of education, poor nutritional diets, low income jobs and, often the abuse and scorn of those fortunate enough to be born into higher castes. They live in places no one else would want to live. Their women and girls are destined for a life of forced prostitution. These girls and women are trafficked internationally, sold by their family members or stolen. It is horrendous! They are deeply affected by the filtered assumptions made by others as well as those made by themselves.

A number of organisations are working to change this inevitability for the Badi. I have had the amazing privilege of supporting some of these efforts (Transform the Nations).

Filtered assumptions create a kind of western caste system.

Back to us in the west… Imagine you are meeting someone for the first time. It should not be hard to do – we have a fairly well established ritual for such experiences. A handshake and exchanging of names is usually followed by some sort of warm, nonverbal communication such as a smile. The parties will often share where they are from. Fairly shallow observations and comments involving non-threatening topics such as the weather, some benign current affairs and so on make up the first attempts at conversation. Inevitably, at some point in these opening social salvos, the question of occupation will be asked and the information exchanged.

During these common, every day, social discourses data is gathered by which we evaluate each other. Data noted in the midst of the largely irrelevant small talk is used to evaluate whether or not there is a possibility of more meaningful topics of conversation being explored. The way someone is dressed, any accent, vocabulary and syntax will be noted for clues to origins and education levels achieved. Occupation will be gauged against potential income bracket and perceived social status. Our culture, education, upbringing etc. affects on the messages we receive from this data collection exercise. They filter the information and create filtered assumptions. All of this happens very quickly and, by the time we are teenagers, has become intuitive for all of us.

The data we gather about someone plays a large determining factor in whether we pursue further interactions. Each future interaction provides opportunities for more data to be gathered and finer judgements to be made, more finely filtered assumptions. Sadly, whether or not we choose to engage with an individual is, more often than not, determined by the answer to the question to self, “What can I get out of this, now or in the future?” When we decide there is potential benefit to ourselves we choose to continue to engage. If not, we do not.

These early, instinctive human evaluations can create boundaries or limits in the mind of a leader based on perceptions (filtered assumptions) of an individuals potential or capabilities. if, as leaders, we are committed to giving people agency to be the best they can be we need to bring any assumptions we might make under scrutiny. Like any other unwritten ground rules which might exist for you, it needs to be exposed and thought through. (Unwritten Ground Rules).

Think about what judgements you find yourself making when you first meet someone
Increase awareness of how your filtered assumptions might impose limits on others
Help your team members to review their own filtered assumptions and potentially limiting perceptions