How do you stay positive when you think bias is working against you?

– By Schon Beechler

Yesterday, I posted a blog, Staying Positive While Failing Miserably, about my recent unfortunate experience teaching an executive program in India for the first time. On my long flight home, I had the time to reflect on the situation more fully and pen a letter to the faculty director the program, who was not onsite while I was teaching (excerpts copied below).

One question is still nagging me:  Was I a victim of bias? Although I have been an American woman working internationally in a male-dominated world for a long time, I have never felt (perhaps naively) that anything of major consequence that has happened to me was due to my gender or my nationality.  I don’t want to ignore my own role in all of this, but what if bias was the underlying cause? How do you stay positive when you feel that people are judging you negatively on things that are irrelevant (at least to your way of thinking)? And what, if anything, can you do about it? I’m struggling this this and would love hear your thoughts in the comment box below.

(excerpts from my email this morning to the program faculty director)

Dear Faulty Director,

I hope that this note finds you well. I am just back from the Executive Program and wanted to write to you, first, to apologize that my sessions did not go nearly as well as anticipated. I know that you had great faith in me, and based on previous experience, I did, too. Unfortunately for everyone, this first experience with the Executive Program group did not go smoothly.

The program director and I had a good debrief before I left and I also solicited feedback from the participants. In reflecting on what they had to say, as well as my previous experience, here’s a summary of the relevant facts and my best guess as to why this happened.

1. First, most of the material I taught is material that I have successfully delivered many times before and for which I have received excellent evaluations. I spent as much or more time preparing for these sessions and was felt focused, energetic and well-rested when I began teaching. I told the participants that I was there to serve them and that I was available over meals and after hours to meet with them on their personal cases or individual leadership challenges.

2. When the program director and I met at the end of the first day to debrief, we both thought that it had gone well. There were a few things that program director suggested tweaking (e.g. giving them more time to work in groups) but the suggestions were minor and we both felt happy with the day.  The program director solicited feedback at the gala dinner that evening and she did not get any negative feedback. However, by mid-day on day two, the group was unhappy enough to ask that their feedback be communicated to me and that I change course.

3. Immediately, I openly addressed the group and reminded them that my purpose was to make the sessions a valuable learning experience for them and so I therefore wanted to solicit their opinions and adapt my material to meet their needs. There were specific topics that they wanted covered in more depth and although I subsequently covered each of those topics to the seeming satisfaction of the person who brought up the topic, my responsiveness to their requests doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact.

4. One of the participants, a woman, who chatted with me on coffee break on the afternoon of the second day said that she thought my position was hard because all of the previous professors had used a similar style and pedagogy in the previous 9 days of the program and mine was different. And herein, I believe, is the major issue.

When looking at the program, talking with the participants, and with the program manager, I see that all of the other faculty in the program are Indian, have a certain similar style and approach, and are male. I have a facilitative style and, quite obviously, am a woman. I also am a newcomer to India and therefore lack the “insider” knowledge that all of the other faculty have. At the end of the day, I think that the problems were largely about teaching style. How much of that is due to my gender, my nationality, or my personality is unknown to me. What is curious, however, is that I have found my style to be effective in a large number of cultures and settings.

Part of it may be an “Indian” thing. I certainly did not have the same rapport with the participants that the other Indian faculty seemed to enjoy. I think there are a number of things that I could do, stylistically, to better meet the demands of  participants. At the same time, I think that you should find someone who more naturally has a similar style to everyone else teaching in the program. I think that this is a pity, since I think that people should be open to diversity and that the participants should be pushed to think for themselves, but you are running a business and I completely understand that.

I am deeply sorry and extremely disappointed by what happened this week. I feel terrible that I didn’t deliver in a way that any of us anticipated and that I put the entire program in jeopardy.

I’m happy to talk with you both further about this and get any additional thoughts you might have. What happened was unfortunate, and the best we can all do now is to learn from the experience and build on it  for the future.

With deep apologies,
Schon