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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Linda Rising: Prejudices Can Alter Team Work

Linda Rising: Prejudices Can Alter Team Work


1. This is Amr Elssamadisy. We are here at Agile 2008 with Linda Rising. Thank you for joining us, Linda. For those of us who don't know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, please?

I'll be happy to do that. I live in Phoenix, Arizona, where the temperature now is about 113° F, so I am very happy to be in Vancouver. I'm an independent consultant. I've been working independently, I run my own company since about 1999. I'm interested in patterns, in retrospectives process and how change happens, and recently, for some strange reason, I've developed an intense interest in how the brain works, how people solve problems and how they look at the world. That has led me to cognitive science and evolutionary biology and even remote interest in other primates - I mean we are primates, of course - apes and monkeys.


2. You are interested in cognitive psychology and I believe your talk this year at Agile 2008 was one of the series on that subject. Can you tell us a little more about it, please?

This was the 3rd in a series of weird talks that I've been very privileged to give at the Agile Conference. Every year I submit, every year I wonder "Well, will they take a chance on me? Will they let me give another in the series of weird talks?" So far, so good and it seems to be OK. They seem to be well received, people seem to be interested, so maybe these are good ideas.


3. What are you on to?

I am looking for the connection between what cognitive scientists and evolutionary biologists are telling us about the way we have evolved to be and what that means for Agile Software Development. I am a believer - I believe it is sort of a religion, in a way. You have to have faith that it will work, and those of us who are enthusiastic are a bit evangelical about Agile Software Development, so I believe there must be connections to the way we are. I believe there must be some hardwiring that makes it all work, and I am happy when I find those connections and it's possible that others are happy to find that connection as well.


4. It sounds very interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about these connections and specifically what connection where you talking about this time?

This time I was looking at stereotyping. The title of the talk was "Who do you trust?", and the abstract tried to explain what I meant by that by saying that we are hardwired to be very judgmental. We categorize people all day long, based on sometimes the most trivial characteristics. I think most of us are pretty familiar with stereotyping in terms of race, religion, sex, height, the color of your hair or the lack thereof, but most of us don't think about some of the trivial stereotyping that we do and we are totally unaware of it and we are not even sure that we are doing it or why we are doing it. Maybe it's just because you remind me of someone that I've forgotten, but that was a good experience or a bad experience, and so I am immediately biased in your favor or not and then that becomes a stereotype for me and all my interactions with you. Everyone does it. We do it all the time and the second part of that is that we do it unconsciously, so we don't think we do it.

Once we've done that, those stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies and that's the bad part. I was talking to a manager about the talk, before I gave it; he wanted to know a little bit more about the subject. When I explained it to him he said "Of course, managers do that. I know that we do that when we interview, we hire, when we move people around, when we promote or not, it's because we've made a very quick decision about someone and someone's ability to do the job they are asked to do." And I said "Well, then you agree" and he said "Yes, but that's not a bad thing, because we are always right." They [managers] are always right! And I felt "Of course they are!"


5. So managers, by stereotyping are always right and of course they are?

Of course they are, because suppose someone hires me and they believe that I have certain qualifications, but that I have certain deficiencies. Now, when they look at my performance, what do they see? They see what they want to see, based on that stereotype. In fact there have been experiments that show the same behavior can be evidenced by someone who's considered competent and someone who's considered incompetent, but what a manager - remember, we all do this - does is say, if this is a good behavior "Well, of course this is a smart person. Yes, that's what I expect." If it's an atypical thing, if it's a stupid behavior, the manager will explain it away "Linda must be having a bad day". So it doesn't matter - you know we talked about reality - what really is out there; we'll distort it to fit our stereotype.


6. Our beliefs, our stereotypes are unconscious and they affect how we see the world, so that's managers are always right. Are we really that naive about who we are?

I think it is kind of scary. We have an image of ourselves as carrying around a little video camera in our heads and that we take pictures of what's really there. We record the sounds that are really out there, and what we get is a little tape that we can store in a library and we can refer to it whenever we need to and we call that "memory". We think that that's an accurate representation of the event. I once talked to a couple who were having difficulties celebrating a significant anniversary. And the argument was between the husband's and the wife's memories of how they met, because those memories were very different. The wife was very upset because she said "That was an important day for us and he doesn't even remember!" and so she recounted the way it really happened. Of course, his memory is completely different and she interpreted that as it wasn't the same for him, it wasn't as important to him, "Maybe he doesn't really love me".

In reality, his picture of that time is just as real as hers and if we went back, if that was possible for us to time-travel, we'd find that both of those memories were distortions and that each had interpreted everything that happened: time of day, what they were wearing, what he said, what she said - neither picture is accurate. Over time, they bring those memories out and they reexamine them and every time they do they change it just a little bit so that, after 20 years, it's not even close. It's nothing to get upset about, it's a natural, normal thing. We all do it, but we live with the delusion that that memory is accurate.


7. That memory isn't accurate?

No. You wouldn't want to be in front of a jury that was listening to an eyewitness account, someone saying "Yes, this is the guy who killed or robbed or committed whatever the crime was. I remember it so clearly. I can identify this individual, I can pick him up from a lineup". I don't think so!


8. There have been experiments. I know that cognitive psychology in general is an experimental science, not just like us we think.

It is an experimental science, but, as my husband says, the reason why I am interested in it now is it is becoming a hard science, because we can take MRIs of the brain and we can actually look at what part of the brain lights up, let’s say in an interview. What part of my brain is working right now? Am I afraid? Am I happy? Am I sad? You'd be able to get an accurate representation, no matter what I said, because you know I might not even know how I feel.


9. So this is really accurate stuff?

It's becoming more accurate. I think the way we characterize the field is that it's exploding, which is why it's so exciting. It's very difficult to keep up with it and I'm not an expert in the area, but I do try to read abstracts of all the latest published material. Just even looking at abstracts is an enormous amount of work - let alone trying to track down those articles and see "Do they have anything for me and my special interest?" It's just amazing what we are learning - very exciting.

We do the stereotyping, we do the judging. I began the talk with a story that's really an experiment. It was an experiment that happened in the '50s, so it's a classic. It's an experiment that's been recounted numerous times. Every beginning psychology student knows about this experiment. It has to do with some boys who lived in Oklahoma. They were all 11 years old, with similar backgrounds, and they were loaded onto 2 separate buses and hold off to a boy scout camp in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The experiment was being run by a fellow named Shariff who was brilliant. He was very innovative and he was interested in the kinds of things we've been talking about: stereotyping, how that affects how we get along, how that could be manipulated.

So the 2 groups of boys were put in 2 separate parts of the camp. During the first week, they were just allowed to be boys and bond, and have fun together. And what happened in that situation was they began to develop an identity: one group became The Eagles -that was their name, they chose it- and the other group was The Rattlers. By the end of the week they were a team; they had their own special rituals, their songs, their secret signs, the Rattler way, the Eagle way and they did it all on their own, without any coaching. This is what we do when we hang out with a bunch of others, we sort of say "we" become an "us." By the end of the week, that was pretty well established. The goal of the research for the first week was "How quickly can that happen?" and that happens pretty quickly.

Step 1: form the group?

Step 2: there was some manipulation on the part of the camp counselors who were also researchers. They began to make the 2 groups aware of each other, just by bringing them close enough so that they could hear each other. What happened was each group began to be aggressive and antagonistic even though they hadn't seen each other. They began to call the other group names based on racial characteristics - so some bad words - even though they hadn't seen the others. "Those people are intruding on our space. They must be stupid, incompetent", lots of other bad names.

And it happened very quickly. Then they introduced the two groups and they were already feeling pretty aggressive toward each other and they forced them to eat in the same mess hall and they sat on different sides of the room, threw food at one another - you can imagine they were 11 years old boys. They set up some competitive games: baseball, tugs of war, etc. They were always in competition, the Eagles VS the Rattlers. By the end of that 2nd week, they were raiding one another's cabins, throwing rocks, burning each other's flags. So things have gotten too almost out now war, by the end of this 2nd week, encouraged by the researchers, of course.

They wanted them to compete - "Who is better? We are better than they are! They are the ones who intruded on our space. We were here first!" So Phase 2: all at war! It didn't take very long. So, it didn't take very long to form the 2 groups, it didn't take very long to have war between 2 groups of very similar boys, all of similar age with similar backgrounds, similar religion, all middle class, all white, but they were ready to kill each other.

Phase 3: "Can we bring them together?" So they started showing movies in the mess hall. Maybe enjoying the same kinds of things - "Let's all go swimming together", no competition anymore. They stopped the competitive games. They tried lots of fun activities: "Let's all have fun together!" - it didn't work. The two groups still hated each other, still the Rattlers and the Eagles. So let's take a break for a minute and we'll leave them there, pondering us, because what they didn't know at the time - this was a very innovative experiment - is what we've already talked about: we are just hardwired to do this, even small children, just as they are learning to talk, so that they can tell you about it.

They are already dividing the world up into "us" and "them", based on obvious characteristics, based on trivial characteristics, and they are already saying disparaging things. That's when they first learn to use bad words to talk about other people, just when they are talking to others - "them". These 11 years old boys have probably been doing it all their lives - they were hardwired to do it. The psychologists didn't realize what they were up against. So it was discouraging, I think for them, to see how quickly they became aggressive and it didn't seem like it was going to be so easy to bring them together. What did they do? They said "Well, this is an experiment" so they decided that they would create a project that required the input and the talent of everybody.


10. No one team could do it alone?

No one team could do it alone, and something that they all cared about, something for which you could say the Eagles and the Rattlers would have a shared goal, shared vision, it affected them all. The first thing they did was they caused a problem in the water line, it was about 1 and ½ km. They said "I don't know why, but suddenly the water supply has been cut off and we need all of you to help us inspect the water line. We all have to do this, because it's too big for any one group, certainly too much for the counselors. We all have to spread out. We all have to look at what's going on here - see if we could find this problem." They all set to work about it and they noticed immediately that, all of a sudden, it wasn't Rattlers over there, Eagles over here, they all just jumped to it.


11. A shared goal that's bigger than any of the two teams and something important to them, not just a shared goal that was given, something that they cared about.

Yes. And that nobody knew how they were going to solve this. The counselors, who were also researchers, didn't know; they just said "This is a problem. We are in trouble. We have no water. If we can't solve this, we'll have to go home and this will be the end of your time here. So what are we going to do?" and all the boys immediately jumped to it. It took them a while, but they found the problem and when they did, they all celebrated. It wasn't the Eagles said "Yes, the Eagles did it" and the Rattlers said "No, the Rattlers did it". It wasn't any fighting, any taking credit. It was "We all did this".


12. This is beginning to sound familiar.

It was a turning point. The researchers thought "We're on to something. Can we do that again? What would happen if we did it again?". So, the truck that brought in supplies, including food, suddenly broke down the next day. They couldn't get it out, it was stuck in the mud, caught behind some trees. They didn't have any equipment, so they said to them "Boys, you know we solved that other problem. What are we going to do about this? Do you think we could all together pull this truck out? It is a really big truck and you're just little kids, what do you think?" "Yes, we can do it. Let's get some ropes!" and together they started to work on the problem. Nobody told them what to do. There were ropes there available, they just jumped on it and they did it together. It was their food and they all celebrated together.


13. So you bring up the celebration in the end - significant?

Yes, I think so. It's the time for recognition of "What we did and how important it was that we were all together working on this. And we couldn't have done it with just the Eagles or the Rattlers - we all had to be there. We don't even know who solved it, we all did it". It wasn't even a matter of "I did this and you did that", it was "We did it". Nobody ever said "Our team was the strongest/the biggest/the smartest". There were a series of those little experiments or projects and by the end of the week they were sitting together in the mess hall, talking about "You know, that was really tough, we were all in that truck and we all had to get out" - you know, 11 years old boys, just talking about what they had done.

The last thing they did was decide maybe they would have a movie together but there wasn't enough budget, couldn't afford it at that time, in the '50s. He had to go rent that movie "It would have been fun to have a movie. What can we do? We should go out and buy one. Any ideas?" And all the boys said "We'll all chip in!" Everybody put 50 cents on the table, so together they paid for Treasure Island and they all watched it together.


14. This is the same group that, when they tried to get them to swim together before or watch a movie together, they wouldn't do it?

Didn't want to do it. Now they sat together, had popcorn, watched Treasure Island. The next morning, when they packed up and were ready to go back home, they had all gotten on the bus and they didn't sit Eagles/Rattlers. They just got on the bus and on the way back, they sang some Eagle songs, some Rattler songs but it was mostly about "all the things we did". It was a turning point. That story has been repeated, there have been lots of other experiments because the first objection to it was "But these boys were similar - all 11, all white, all protestant, similar backgrounds. What would happen if you really tried to mix it up?" So there was a follow-on done in the '60s in Beirut, little boys, 12 years old this time, Christians and Muslims - a lot of tension at that time in Lebanon.


15. Tensions between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon have always been tense.

Yes. So, Phase 1 - divide them up into 2 teams. These groups were Red and Blue. In one week they were ready to go. But when they started making the 2 groups aware of each other, things got out of hand. One small band broke into the kitchen, stole some knives and went after a member of the other group. When you first hear about that, you think "OK, maybe there is no way to trump some really serious religious differences because almost all the boys had been either part of or spent some time in a religious school, so it wasn't just like "I go to church on Sunday occasionally" - this was serious business.


16. And in Middle East, religion is part of their lives.

The teams were Muslims and Christians, but what I forgot to mention was that each team had the same number of Muslims and Christians. It's not what you expected, is it? So each team was half Muslim, half Christians. And the ones who've broken to the kitchen and stole the knives were all Christians and the guy they went after also Christian.


17. You caught us all with stereotypes, didn't you?

Yes. Group trumps religion. The loyalties within those 2 groups were stronger. The Christians were going after the Christians because it was Red against Blue. "Us" against "them" in that particular case was not about religion, it was about "We have spent a week together swimming and having fun and the people in this group are now more important to me than the people who are in my religious 'us'". So there have been variations on that with political ideology, just about any kind of severe categorization you can name, and it's always the same: the group trumps the other category. The category that you would think would be really deep or more essential is overcome by just being together in a small group, working with a shared goal together.

Now, the psychologists have categorized that, called it "collaboration" or "social interdependence". Groups that have it work together well because they have a shared vision, a shared goal and each member of the group realizes that it's not just his/her contribution that will enable the group to make - it will be all of us together. What I do really depends on whether you are able to do what you need to do, and therefore it's incumbent upon me to also help you, to be available to you, to support you, to do what I can to make your job possible, and that when we get to the end it will be because we all contributed, we all did it and then we celebrate.

Does that sound like an Agile team to you? A real Agile team - that's the message! Maybe that's the heart or the essence of Agility - that we allow that to happen. I started looking at the practices - they really stand up. All of a sudden we are aware, when in many teams we are not. We are aware of others are doing; we become aware of how we might help or support in some way what someone else is doing, to enable their success because we know our success is tied to their success. Pairing. When I sit down with someone else and I open myself up to say "This guy is really pretty smart", maybe I didn't realize that, maybe I had stereotyped him, maybe I had thought "He is all right, but he is black/Hispanic/tall/short/wears funny clothes/picks his nose" or whatever it is, and it was hard for me to get past that, but sitting with him, somehow now I see: we are on the same team and it trumps all of those other things.

So, what the psychologists tell us is that, yes, we are hardwired to do that; yes, we do it all day long. We cannot not do it, but when we are in a collaborative setting, that context trumps those other stereotypes - it's a way around some natural tendencies. You know, when we say something like "hardwired" that was essential for survival. If we didn't have a group we wouldn't have made it this far, so it's not always a bad thing, it has enabled us to overcome some pretty severe obstacles. That's why we are here today. We will always probably have that, but now we realize that what's more important is to work together. That's how we can maybe have world peace.


18. So you are not talking just about Agile Development?

I'm not. And of course, I might as well throw in some primate studies. I won't talk about apes, I'll talk about monkeys. There are some interesting experiments that have been done with Capucin - very cute little monkeys. They can be taught to collaborate to haul in a very heavy framework because it has treats on it. They start by giving each of the monkeys treats. So 2 monkeys work together and they pull in a very heavy framework, because neither monkey can do it alone.

Then they get to have the treats - the apples and oranges. That's good, but suppose we take away the treats for one of the monkeys. Now, it's still important that they both pull in the heavy framework, but there is only a treat available for one of them. What will happen? Will we still get collaboration? What will happen with the treat? What they learned was that yes, they will both collaborate and when the monkey that gets the treats, gets the treats, he'll go over and sit by the other one who helped him and he'll share.


19. So they still collaborate? And the monkey somehow realizes that it's in his self interest to share?

We can't interview him, so we don't know what he is thinking. Maybe it's to his best interest in the future. He thinks "This could happen again. If I don't share maybe he won't help me", maybe he is thankful, maybe he knows that gratitude is the way to a long and healthy life. But whatever the reason, say monkeys do it and there is a close connection. When you see that behavior in primates other than ourselves it sort of gives us a sense that "Yes, this must make sense for us to do this. It must make sense for us to collaborate". Some monkeys are better at this than others.

For instance, the stump-tails are very collaborative and they are not as friendly as the bonobos, but they spend a lot of time grooming and a lot of time just being together, whereas the Recess monkeys are just nasty and they fight a lot and they are very aggressive. They don't do a lot of grooming, they are strictly hierarchical. So they are a little like the chimpanzee model. What they've never done with the chimpanzees and the bonobos is to put them together to see which one would win out. Is it possible that one could teach the other about a better way?

They are awfully strong - chimps and bonobos. I would be afraid. I mean they could kill each other. It would be risky. They actually did an experiment: they took a collection of little Recess monkeys and a collection of little stump-tails and they put them together in the same cage.


20. Are the Recess monkeys the aggressive ones and the others very collaborative?

Yes. At first they stayed on either side, they didn't really interact too much. But over time, the Recess came over and they were going to attack because they are so aggressive. So they tried to attack the stump-tails and the stump-tails either ignored them or started grooming them. The stump-tails had no tails, hence the name, and the Recess had long beautiful black soft tails. So the Recess monkeys don't spend much time grooming, but the stump tails loved grooming the Recess monkeys because they loved playing with those tails.

After a while, the Recess got to like that and they thought "This could be a good time". So the Recess monkeys started grooming, they stopped being so aggressive, they all began to eat together and sleep in a little pile together, stopped biting one another, stopped arguing over who had what. It took a few months and when they separated them, the Recess were still less aggressive, even when they went back. I hate to say that world peace hangs on something like a monkey's tail, but I find that it gives me reason for hope.


21. Linda, this is a very strong message, but how have people reacted to this message when listening to it and trying to think how to apply it to their Agile teams?

If you had asked me that question before I came here, I would have had one answer, which is "I have no idea". And it could be that this is just too weird and it may be that I've gone too far. I wondered about the bonobo and the chimpanzee talk before I gave it. I thought "Maybe I'm going too far.", but what I learned from there was "I'll be surprised at what people think". Since I've given the talk, which is only been a day and a half now, so many people have come up to me and said something like the following: "I think you are right, and you know, I tried that.

I tried actually shifting my emphasis. I tried to say ’All right, I'm not going to call them 'the trouble team' anymore’". I'm going to go in with something that Michael Hill said in his talk: "Managers rule should be 'catch them doing something good'." I heard his talk right before I gave mine and it caused me to actually change my talk to address your question, which I couldn't have done before that. Is that if a manager really has that as Rule #1, or a consultant, or anyone else who interacts with the team, think what that does: it causes a shift in your stereotype because now you are doing what the manager who hired you, who thought you were very smart, is doing all the time. Anything you do he interprets as OK or as something a smart person would do. His stereotype affects how he sees your behavior.

So, if a manager says "My job is catch them doing something good" -that's what he is looking for that shifts the way he interacts with the team, that shifts his stereotype from "trouble" to "let's find all the good things". We have a pattern in the Fearless Change book that is called "Fear less" and it basically says, when someone comes at you with a negative attitude or a skeptical response to your initiative, one of the best things to do is acknowledge that to respect it, to turn it to your advantage in a way just by listening. All of a sudden, the person feels honored and respected - it shifts his perspective. The stereotypes that we have change us and they also change the people that we interact with.

There was a very famous experiment that was done with women and mathematics - I feel pretty close to that: I was a mathematician for a while. There is a stereotype there: women aren't good in mathematics. They gave a lot of women in various settings a math test. In some settings they said to the group of women "Don't forget to check that box. There is a box at the beginning that has 'Gender'." and that was enough to lower the score for that group of women, a significant number of points, just by reminding them to check that box. The stereotype not only affects the behavior of the person who has it, but the person who is on the receiving end. I know that the world believes I'm not any good at math and my behavior then conforms to that.

That team knows whether he's saying they are trouble or whether he is looking for the good - we pick that up. Then, my behavior is modified accordingly. If it can happen because of a subtle thing like checking a box, that now my score is lower, I do that to myself, I react to that stereotype. How powerful that is! What are we doing to whole groups of people? What are we doing to teams? We think that "My calling them 'trouble', my behavior toward them doesn't affect how they are."That's the startling thing about this.


22. What you are telling us is, if we are aware of our stereotypes, we can have control over them, to some degree. If we have a positive stereotype, that not only affects the way that we see things happen, that actually affects the people that we work with because, whether we say it in their face or not, it's felt?

Yes, because it changes our behavior. They've actually observed that in a number of research studies, that looking at the interaction between 2 people of either different sexes, different races, different religions, and people can be just dressed up. We believe this person is Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and then our behavior changes. That stereotype that we have - many times we don't realize we are carrying that around with us - changes our behavior, which affects our interactions with those people, which, in turn, changes their behavior and it just spirals. If we can turn that around, by reminding ourselves to look for the good. I thought "What a powerful thing!" I've heard that so many times, it never really had this significance. Maybe it was just hearing Michael say that or maybe I was getting ready for the talk, but I altered my slides to put that in, so that other people might have the same revelation "Go in to your teams looking for the good and that will change your behavior, which will change their behavior".

Oct 25, 2008

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  • Excellent!!

    by Kiran Rao,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi Linda,

    This is one of the great talk I have ever watched.
    It is so trivial, issues that we ignore and take it for granted. If you come up with another handbook on the individual behaviour,it will be guiding book for each one who makes conclusions on another individual.
    Linda, You once again rock !!. I enjoy all your videos at InfoQ website..


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