This post might be a little bit controversial, but I’m going to throw it out there, since it’s been on my mind for a few weeks. I’m completing another Organizational Behavior (OB) class, and we often discuss concepts around forming groups and behavior within those groups. There’s a concept of an “in” group and an “out” group, “we” vs. “them”, “us” vs. “the other”. These concepts have been particularly applicable lately, as I’ve been reading a lot of articles about the pay gap, the ‘ole boys’ club, and disputes between minority groups and majority groups.
From the articles around the web, it seems that many people feel that the ‘ole boys’ club continues because men are intentionally sexist and exclusionary, and that women aren’t fighting hard enough to break down the walls to force their way into the network. I sometimes fall into this hyped-up mentality that often incites sensationalism, instead of an honest look at a problem, and a plan of action to come to a solution. But then, once in a while, my own bias hits me square in the face, and I realize that in general, things keep going the way they’ve always gone simply because of human nature.
Take my MBA classmates, for example. I had the good fortune to work with an excellent group in my OB class, and I would love to work with them again. I would also love to be introduced to people that they would want to work with again, because I trust their word. I commented that I wanted to host a casual networking party toward the end of the summer, and extend it to them, and any of their classmates or contacts that they’d like to invite. The goal is to trade professor recommendations, find good group members for future semesters, and ultimately, build relationships with people that can help you on your ascent up the corporate ladder. This is how networks form: I picked people “like me”, and they will in turn introduce me to people “like them” (and, good ‘ole math, if a=b, and b=c, then a=c… there’s a proper name for that, but I haven’t used it since freshman year of high school!).
It’s interesting, because on the surface, the people “like me” are actually a pretty diverse group. In my group this semester, there’s males and females from several different cultural backgrounds, including China, Haiti, and Chile, a few white males, and a few white females. Groups from past semesters include males and females from several other countries and cultures around the world, so this networking party would be a nice rainbow. However, our backgrounds are very similar. We all grew up with the expectation of going to college, and many, with the expectation of attending graduate school. We all work in nice offices, wearing nice clothes, and we go home to a nice neighborhood, to nice spouses with good jobs. We all speak fluent English, and we all behave according to American norms. Despite a wide array of cultural norms in our personal lives, we do business like Americans.
Quite frankly, it’s just easier that way. When we say “business formal”, we all know what that means. When we say “standard presentation”, we all know what that means. When we divide the work load for a project, we know what “deadline” means. It’s just easier to work with people who are like you, so you end up gravitating toward them, and perpetuating the “in group”. At least in my circle, we’ve moved past skin color and gender issues, but we use education and money as the new barrier. Again, not intentionally, but because it’s just the path of least resistance. I don’t know that this is necessarily wrong, either, since some of it has to do with life stages as well. I relate better to people who are in graduate school or a business environment, just like I relate better to young married professionals than a stay-at-home mom.
The concern is that the “in group” never gives anyone else a chance to break in, even though they may be perfectly suited to join the group. It’s most dangerous when the bias is not obvious, like the group I described in my case. We look diverse and inclusive on the surface, but we’ve got some pretty strong bias in the group. Would we be willing to invite someone with little or no work experience to the networking party? Probably not. Would we be willing to invite someone that isn’t pursuing graduate studies? Pretty unlikely. Then again, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and Google started in a garage. Granted, everyone in the world isn’t a college-drop-out-turned-billionaire, but there are definitely smart, capable, well-connected people that don’t fit “our” criteria. And thus, the same network trends continue, and business as usual goes on. This is also problematic because we live in a globalized society, with a worldwide economy. I like to think I’m open-minded about different business customs and I love exploring other cultures. I rarely examine my own bias when it comes to business interactions, because I believe I don’t have any. This is a false sense of security, and though uncomfortable, it’s necessary to understand the judgements and preconceived notions I have about people with different backgrounds.
I don’t have any concrete solutions for breaking down the “in group” mentality, but I believe it starts with brutal honesty within ourselves. I’ve taken the time to understand a situation with my networking prospects, and I’ve been considering the consequences of my actions. Have you recognized a time when you perpetuated the “in group” mentality? Is there a person that might not fit the criteria, but could bring valuable insight, connections, or perspective to a situation?