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Using prejudice as a tool for growth

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“Prejudice is an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.”

One would have to have been living in a cave this past week not to have heard the terrible news about the death of George Floyd at the hands of four rogue policemen in Minneapolis. Seeing the video, hearing the commentary, and experiencing the feelings of disgust and compassion, brought back so many memories to me of the 1960s in the United States when I was in university.

At that time, prejudice was so pervasive that it just seemed like part of the DNA of America—an unalienable right of “privilege”. I use quotes around the word privilege to indicate the extremely contextual nature of it. It is that contextual nature that can make anyone feel privileged, in the right circumstance, and give rise to prejudice. We see this between countries, schools, cities, neighborhoods, professions, different economic and social groupings—not to mention race, culture, sexual orientation, and religion.

In many cases, I have found that prejudice is an attitude based on fear—a fear of inadequacy, of the person/group/place actually being as bad as others have said, or just the unknown of what will happen. And, I think it’s fair to say that we all have prejudices in one form or another, if we are honest with ourselves. Later in life, as I began to work with international organizations, I found out that prejudice wasn’t exclusive to Americans. I found it to be an all too common by-product of mergers and acquisitions and expansions into new regions and countries, when I was told how lazy they were, or how rude and uncultured they were compared to us, or how there was no way their culture is going to work in this organization. Needless to say, these perceptions did not bode well and they could be a significant reason that, as the Harvard Business Review states, from 70% to 90% of all mergers and acquisitions fail.

All of this brings me to the title of this column and how prejudice can be a tool for growth. Recently, I was asked to work with a global telecom organization that had made an acquisition in Central Europe. There was bad blood from the get-go: it was the innovators versus the Luddites, the hard-working, dedicated staff against the lazy, entitled morons, and on and on. How was this going to ever work out? I did a number of things with the leadership from each group and, later, the combined leadership group, but there was one thing we did that I think turned the tide and that’s what I want to share with you, because I think it relates directly to the division and polarity we see all around us today, especially in everyday life.

I asked each person to do something. Number one, accept the fact that you have a prejudice. It’s only human that we have these. Next, realize that stereotypical thinking is the crutch of a lazy mind that will not invest in the effort to find the truth. I asked them to be honest with themselves, and when they felt their prejudice begin to affect a thought or interaction, to stop and recognize what was happening—a prejudice was trying to hijack your thinking and behavior before you even knew what this person was like as an individual, or what the real issues were and what caused them. I urged them to have the courage to go beyond stereotypes and commit to get to know people as individuals.

And this is what my message to you, today, is: Accept the fact that you may have a prejudice, but cut it off before it hijacks you, and forget the stereotypes and get to know the individuals. I am not saying this will be easy. I am saying it is worth it from a standpoint of personal growth.

I’ll leave you with a favorite quote from a former Dean of Theology at Princeton University. “Be kind to those you meet. We’re all fighting tough battles.”

Good luck on your journey!

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