Actor, observer, or wrecking ball?


A moment of silence for straight white men, please.

You have seen the headlines right? White guys are so 2011! It’s the end of men!

Demographics are changing (which we have been talking about for a long, long time already), and it seems like I am starting to hear a lot of concern about bias and discrimination from folks who could not be paid to take bias and discrimination seriously in the past.

Discrimination never really happens, but Reverse Discrimination, now that is a serious problem. Sexism is a crock, but my son is not getting copious amounts of attention in school and it is just horrible what they are doing to boys today. I could go on and on here, but will not.

I have a thing for social psychology and have always taken special interest in research related to cognitive bias, which I see influencing workplace interactions in a lot of different ways. Take for example the actor-observer bias, which is basically our tendency as human beings to view the behavior of other people and to believe that their behavior is basically about their personality or character rather than the situation or context that they are in, while we always consider the situation or context when considering our own behavior.

This is how it might show up at work …

When you cry racism / sexism / someotherism you are “playing the race card,” or you are overly sensitive, or you are just trying to cover up the fact that you are incompetent, or you are fill in the blank. It is about your character, not about the environment you’re in. But when I cry reversesomekindofism, it has nothing to do with my character or personality, it is just based on the facts, thank you very much.

Neat, huh?

This is how it showed up this morning in my car …

We were both stopped at an intersection, and you went before it was your turn. I immediately judged you to be a complete asshole. But when I have done the exact same thing before, it was not because I was a complete asshole (of course). You see, I was running late getting our kids to school and really had no choice. You and I do the exact same thing, we exhibit the same behavior, but it ends up being interpreted and evaluated very differently.

We experience and interpret things very differently depending on whether we are the actor or the observer.

Pretty easy to see how this makes it hard for us to make progress. Progress requires that we be concerned and offended by all bias and discrimination, not just the stuff directed at us.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Demographics are changing and that matters. Ask the Republican Party. The monoculture is slowly losing its grip on corporate America. This is a powerful opportunity for us to reimagine the way that we do work, corporate culture, management and leadership. We can greatly reduce the impact of intentional and unintentional discrimination when we take it personally, regardless of who it is directed at.

Be good to each other.


  1. broc.edwards


    I once heard this described as: we judge ourselves based on our intentions and others based on their actions.

    The melting pot of US culture is so cool when it brings in and integrates ideas from around the world and such a liability when it devolves into a generic vanilla strip mall monoculture. And now I’m preaching to the choir…

  2. What I’m Reading | Spark Consulting

    […] fantastic, challenging post from Joe Gerstandt on actor-observer bias and the myth of reverse […]

contact       brand management by venn market strategies