I’ve been thinking about the Ellen Pao / Kleiner Perkins trial as the jury continues to deliberate. Was Ellen Pao qualified to be promoted? I can’t tell. Was she the victim of overt gender discrimination, and dismissed because she challenged her firm about it? It seems like it. Was she subject to unconscious bias at Kleiner Perkins? Unquestionably. The problem is that Kleiner Perkins’ answer to the first question is an outcome of the third answer.
I can be so emphatic about the third answer because we all know that we have unconscious biases toward or against traits and behaviors based on our own experience. And we act on them – you may recall Yale Professor Jo Handelsman’s study that is part of the growing research on this subject.
Kleiner Perkins’ answer, as expressed by its counsel in closing arguments, is that gender had nothing to do with Pao's dismissal. “She was given every opportunity to succeed. Ellen Pao failed for one reason and one reason only – her view of her skills and performance was far different from what they were.”
We all know that’s not true. There is no one reason that explains Ellen Pao’s situation. 
I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking about unconscious bias over many years. I think the fundamental expression of bias is our attribution of motive to behavior, without knowing the facts. I assume that the person cutting in front of me at the grocery store is arrogant, when actually he was distracted by his toddler asking for candy and didn’t see me. The authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high figured out that people who assume the opposite, that others are acting as reasonable, rational and decent people, succeed in business and life and that this positive assumption may be the key to building successful organizations.
So, as I think about Ellen Pao, and my own experiences in the legal profession, I come back to what I think is the most important thing we can do to root out and affect unconscious bias. When confronted by a colleague (or friend, or spouse) characterizing someone else’s behavior, we need to step back, ask questions, uncover the facts, and encourage her to consider whether the characterization is accurate, or simply an outcome of ignorance of the true motivation, shaped by her own bias.
I try to do this in my own work environment. Years ago, I worked with a brilliant lawyer. She was tenacious, diligent, and a strong advocate for our clients. She also talked a lot, and sometimes loudly. She demanded a lot of those who worked for her, but she was not rude, or mean, and she worked just as hard, or harder, than her team. Some other lawyers in my firm responded negatively to her. My perception was that they were attributing negative characteristics and motives to her, based on how she presented herself. She, on the other hand, developed some resentment over time about how others treated her. I spent a lot of time counseling her and working with my other colleagues to debunk assumptions and try to help each person see we all shared the goal of doing the best for our clients and our business. It worked, to an extent, but she ultimately left the firm.
More recently, I worked with a lawyer who was smart, hard-working, and dedicated, but whose personality was reserved and demeanor was quiet. Early in her career she was tagged as not having what I’ll call “fire in her belly,” which, apparently, is required to be a great transactional lawyer. But as soon as I heard that, in a partner meeting, I asked, “What does that mean?” and “What makes you think that?” The discussion then focused on one or two factual examples of interactions between the associate and several partners, which came down to her not meeting their (unexpressed) expectations of communication and “checking-in.” Her work was good, she was productive, but she didn’t act like they thought she should act. Did that mean she didn’t passionately want to succeed as a lawyer in our firm, or that she was not committed and doing a great job for our clients? No, as it turns out. This story has a better ending, because after that meeting we talked with her about her specific behaviors and our expectations, she adapted, we continued to communicate, and she is a successful colleague to this day.
Try it. It’s not always easy, and has to be done bit by bit, in real time, when you hear the comment about the guy who is not committed because he comes in late, only to find out he is tutoring at the local elementary school, or a peer tells you a subordinate “let me down” on a job. Don’t say, “That’s too bad,” ask “What happened? Did you talk with her about it? Could there be a good reason for the outcome?”
If we all take this approach, we really can change the world.
(If you want to learn more about how to do this, I recommend Crucial Conversations as a great how-to book. And for an interesting perspective on what the Ellen Pao situation illustrates, read this.)