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'The Rock' and Cognitive Bias

Imagine you have a co-worker who keeps stealing your pens. Most of us have had something like that happen – a co-worker who takes the hole punch to her desk every time she needs to use it and doesn’t return it, or one who takes your pen every time she comes by your desk. Most of us would have no problem with asking the pen-stealing co-worker to stop. We would not feel shame in confronting her about it or even in going to her desk and taking the pens back. We mark our pens with tape or tie plastic flowers to them because we expect pen stealing culprits to exist. If an employee came to you as a boss and told you that she wanted you to get the pens back for her, you might think it was a little bit shy that she didn’t want to get the pens herself, but you probably wouldn’t think she was a liar because of it.

So, why is harassment and discrimination such a different experience? Why do we respond completely differently to harassment, discrimination, bullying, and other toxic behaviors at work than we do to pen stealing?

The first answer you might want to give is that harassment, discrimination, bullying, and other toxic behaviors are more serious than pen stealing, and so we should act differently. That is a totally fair answer, but I would say that if something is more serious, we should respond more effectively, not less effectively, to the problem. We should take the skills we already have with pen-stealing and enhance them, not throw them out the window. And that is not the case if you compare those two problems. If the seriousness of the issue were the difference, we should be responding at least as effectively to abuse as we do to pen stealing.

I believe the real answer is that a complaint about abusive behavior at work speaks to an underlying cultural health issue in the workplace in the way that pen stealing does not. It speaks to an imbalance of power that we are still learning to navigate in culture.

Now, in the past, there has been a debate about whether sexual harassment, for example, is about sex or power. The traditional feminist analysis has always been that abusive behavior is about power, not about sexual attraction. Others have argued, though, that sometimes there is just a clumsy person who is not good at flirting and becomes harassing because of his awkwardness. In that case, the harassment could be about sexual attraction, not about power.

The problem with both analyses is that they both have tended to speak to the perpetrator’s perspective and tried to understand why the perpetrator is behaving in a harassing way. Is he just awkward and attracted to his target, or is he trying to keep her fearful and powerless?

From the targeted person’s perspective, harassment and discrimination are always about power.

Anne Clark described this perfectly in her blog post, The Rock Test: A Hack for Men Who Don’t Want to Be Accused of Harassment. In the post, she quotes a New York Times article saying that men are becoming hyper-aware of their interactions with women and avoiding women at work altogether. Clark explains that navigating how to interact with women at work is simple. She says, “It’s as clear cut as this: Treat all women like you would treat Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.” She recommends that when men are working with a co-worker, and it turns out she’s pretty “in the face, even,” so things become confusing, all you have to do is close your eyes and picture Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson instead.

Then, when you’re picturing someone who could crush your skull with his bare hands, it becomes clear how to behave. The Rock Test perfectly shows how important power dynamics are in workplace abuse situations.

Still, The Rock Test continues to speak to the perpetrator’s perspective, as we have done for decades, to try to get workplace abusers to stop abusing their power (or stop inappropriately pursuing sexual attraction, depending on the perpetrator’s perspective of problem).

I hate to break it to you, but trying to get harassers to stop harassing has not worked yet. With about seventy-five percent of harassment incidents unreported, one in five women becoming career refugees because of harassment (and unknown statistics related to other disadvantaged career refugee groups), as well as seventy-five percent of reporters facing retaliation, there is a lot of work left to do. You probably already knew that and have had your own experience with the ineffectiveness of this broken system. But without something that actually does work to replace it, it’s hard for business owners and workplace leaders to know what to do. At least teaching people what harassment and discrimination are is something, right?

One of the reasons it is not working to focus on the harasser’s perspective in trying to stop harassment is that we’re trying to get people to change when they have no motivation to change. When the targeted employees are leaving careers and experiencing retaliation, the perpetrators are actually getting rewarded for their harassing behavior.

The traditional policies, trainings, and interventions around abuse at work try to help potential perpetrators understand what harassment and discrimination are so that they don’t get fired for it. If you think about it, this makes sense for a lot of reasons: If perpetrators stopped harassing, the rest of us wouldn’t have to worry about our safety. Also, the criminal justice system, which most other systems have been taught to imitate, is intentionally focused on protecting the civilian population from an oppressive government. So, in the criminal justice system, we worry the most about preventing someone from being wrongly sent to prison. In the employment system, much of what we do wrongly mimics this model, so we worry about someone being wrongly fired by an oppressive boss. We don’t do this consistently, though, and so the random application of criminal law standards creates more chaos.

The trouble with both models, and why they have been ineffective, is that simply putting someone in prison or firing someone does not address the root cause of either the problem of crime or the problem of toxic behavior at work. We have tried for centuries to put the “bad people” on an island so that we don’t have to deal with them, and it’s unlikely to start magically working now. I call it the “hunt for the bad apple.” We want to find the bad apple in the bunch and cut off the “bad” part or toss out the apple, and by doing so protect the rest of the apples in the basket. Sadly, we are not apples. The longer we hunt for the bad ones, the more focused we become on fear of the rotten.

Even sadder, all of our brains have the biases that create discriminatory and harassing behavior. We may see one person behave in a way that we consider to be outside of the bounds of what is acceptable or appropriate, but when it comes to abuse at work, what we see is almost always only the tip of the iceberg. More than that, if the abuse does not get stopped immediately or we struggle with how to stop it, it is usually a sign of an underlying systemic support of the abuse. “Underlying systemic support” happens when people in higher positions in a business have an unconscious assumption something is normal.

What I’m trying to say is that all of us have discrimination in our own brains. The research on brains calls this “cognitive bias,” and often it just looks like trusting the people we know more than the people we don’t know. It looks like seeing someone do one good thing and believing they are a “good person.” Or, it looks like seeing someone do one bad thing, and being unable to acknowledge it because we’ve seen good things from them in the past. The reality is that people we don’t know are trustworthy at the same rate as people we know, possibly more or less, but always unrelated to whether we know them or not. People who do “good” things also do bad things.

This kind of cognitive bias expands to believing that people who are like us are good people and people who are unlike us are bad people. The people who like our favorite sports team are better than the people who like competitive teams, for example. It makes sense that our brains have evolved to believe our tribe is better than the other tribes. This kind of loyalty creates strong bonds and safety.

It also creates discrimination. It plants in our minds the idea that people who do not look like us are bad at the skills we care about because of characteristics that are unrelated to the skill. For example, it makes as much sense to say that people who like yellow shirts are bad at math as to say women are bad at math. It makes as much sense to say people who drive blue cars are good leaders as to say that white people are good leaders. The characteristics are unrelated to the skill, and pairing them creates a false correlation. Some people who are female, non-white, wear yellow shirts, and drive non-blue cars are probably good at math and good leaders.

But each of our brains creates these correlations in order to make our thought processing run faster. And our unconscious brains are incredibly good at running efficiently. Stopping to consider whether blue cars are really related to leadership interferes with our brain grouping things together in order to create more efficiency. So, when we have the privilege of ignoring these false correlations, our brains go happily along ignoring them.

People who benefit (even unintentionally) from discrimination have to fight with our unconscious brains, which only want to run efficiently, in order to consider and shift the thinking errors that create discrimination. If you know a white woman who brags that she “doesn’t see color,” this is an example of that kind of discrimination. She has the unconscious privilege of not seeing color because she has the culturally-favored characteristic of being white. This creates a bias, which inevitably results in discriminatory use of that privilege.

That means that it is much more difficult for those of us who have benefited from discrimination and harassment to make any kind of shift. Harassers are strongly motivated by their unconscious brains not to see what they’re doing as harassment. The social stigma around harassment and discrimination creates even more external motivation for each of us to ignore and repress any thoughts we might have that are discriminatory. When we ignore and repress them, they don’t go away, they become assumptions. The more we don’t want to look at them, the more they become implanted as biased beliefs. This means that when white women who have experienced sexism are repressing their own biases rather than questioning them, we have a difficult time seeing bias we might have around race. Black women who have full physical abilities, but who feel like it’s unacceptable to acknowledge their brains might have biases, will have a difficult time seeing bias they might have around disability. Each of us has areas of privilege and areas of disadvantage. Where we have privilege, our brains want to protect us from seeing that the disadvantage other people have in that area might be because of discrimination. Recognizing discrimination and questioning our bias slows things down in a way our unconscious brains hate.

Training perpetrators not to harass is unlikely to stop harassment and discrimination ... ever. It is at least the slowest way to stop discrimination. Instead, when each of us can openly talk about the biases we engage in and that we see around us, we can create a shift without waiting for people who do not have our unique viewpoints on where biases exist. People who can’t see it can’t change it, so we can’t wait for them.

The other reason it is important to empower the employees who see the discrimination, rather than expecting those perpetrating discrimination to change first, is that what one person believes is harassment or discrimination is often different than what another person believes is harassment or discrimination. I have been in a situation where someone told a hilarious joke about me being murdered by a serial rapist that made me genuinely laugh until I cried (true fact). But I have also been in a different situation where someone touched my shoulder and I went into a panic. Some people would have been reasonably offended by the murder joke and not offended by the shoulder rub. Individually, many of us have different expectations of what behavior we want to tolerate and what behavior we do not want to tolerate.

Some one-size-fits-all rules can work. For example, I encourage employers to set the rule that touching is not expected at work and that any touching requires active consent ahead of time. This is because for employees who have experienced physical abuse or intimidation in the past, touching at work is often an unnecessary and easily avoided trigger. Often in smaller, family-run companies implementing this kind of rule can be tough, though, because there is a family culture of being “huggers.” The trouble is that any culture that routinely invades the personal space of a member is vulnerable to abuses. Where we can implement rules that expect everyone to be cautious of invading anyone else’s space, exceptions are still possible, and an active-consent “hugger” culture just makes sure everyone is into it, not only those in positions of power.


This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit Or you can purchase online via Amazon.

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