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Do You Size People Up Too Quickly?

Sometimes a simple statement or story can open your mind to something you never considered before. I love those “aha moments.” My brother Jeff was the source of countless “aha moments” in my life. I’m going to share with you a timeless lesson about our tendency to size each other up all too quickly. Sometimes our snap decisions have absolutely no basis at all.

Jeff began working at Southwest Airlines when the airline was just starting up. His first job at Southwest was cleaning the airplanes and bathrooms on the night shift. Not glamorous but he was thankful for the paycheck and a foot in the door of a good and growing company.

In the book he and I wrote together, Inside Out, he included one simple but important paragraph about his time cleaning airplanes.

One thing I soon noticed in the business world was how quickly people size each other up. The pilots and flight attendants were never rude to me, but there was this subtle way everyone had of treating me as if I were a step below them. Passengers did the same. They thought the uniform I used to scrub airplanes communicated something important about who I was. We all judge far too quickly, and I have never forgotten that lesson.”

Fast forward, Jeff ended up working side by side with the founder, Herb Kelleher, designing Southwest Airlines well-known, successful hiring and training programs. He was also a big part of defining the core values that have made Southwest so unique.

I often wonder how many potential superstars work in companies with bosses who size them up too quickly. Perhaps, like my brother, they took any job they could just to get their foot in the door. These capable people then get stuck in low level jobs. The bosses perception of them is influenced by their low level position.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, provided me with one explanation as to why we judge so quickly. He explains that often our brains work so quickly that we don’t even think about our attitudes or decisions. We see something. It triggers an association in our head. We form a decision without any rational thought at all. So in the case of my brother Jeff, people see ugly orange jumpsuit and they immediately think “not too bright.” Kahneman refers to our brain’s tendency to make quick snap judgements as Cognitive Ease. It’s our brains way of conserving energy and making sense of a complex world.

Kahneman says “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” Interesting.

Similarly, in a March 2021 article in Psychology Today by Dr. Myra Altman, she states:

We all develop mental shortcuts (called heuristics) that help us make snap decisions so our brains don’t expend energy debating the pros and cons of every choice: snakes are dangerous, snow is cold. The downside to these shortcuts is that we make them across every category of information and they’re frequently wrong.

Note, we are frequently wrong! I tell myself this often. It makes me a better listener!

In Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I was reminded of this life lesson again. He tells a story about seeing a man on a subway in New York. The man had his eyes closed while his children were running around, yelling, throwing things, and even grabbing people’s newspapers. He was oblivious to their disruptive behaviors. Covey says:

I couldn’t believe he could be so insensitive. Eventually, with what I felt was unusual patience, I turned and said, “Sir, your children are disturbing people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if he saw the situation for the first time. “Oh, you’re right,” he said softly, “I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Suddenly, I saw things differently. And because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. My heart filled with compassion.

This is what happens when your perception changes. Your emotions change too.

Fight against those snap judgements, especially when they lead to baseless negative opinions. The world has enough negativity already. I get sucked into the vortex of negativity in this world just like anyone else. But I don’t stay there. Frankly, it’s just too depressing. Encourage someone today. Expect the best. Give someone a chance. Your expectations could be life changing for them.

Take Aways

  • Don't let someone's position at work be all that you see. Open your eyes and hearts to their true capabilities.

  • Sometimes your perceptions are wrong.

  • Give someone a chance. Expect the best. We need more of that.


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