Dr. Dolly Chugh, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations, New York University Stern School of Business
Dr. Dolly Chugh is an award-winning, tenured professor at the New York University Stern School of Business. She studies implicit bias and unintentional unethical behavior (“bounded ethicality”). Dolly teaches MBA courses in leadership, management, and negotiations, and is the faculty chair of the LAUNCH Orientation program. She studies socially charged issues like race and gender and brings these normally undiscussed issues into the MBA classroom. Her goal is to engage business students in important societal issues and to equip them to do the same with others. Dolly writes a monthly column about race, gender, diversity, inclusion, and bias for Forbes.com. Her first book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias (HarperCollins), was published in September 2018.
Taking a “goodish” approach to becoming a better leader
Dr. Dolly Chugh discusses research on the psychological constraints on the quality of decision-making with ethical import, a phenomenon known as “bounded ethicality.” She has special interest in unintentional forms of unethical behavior. Dr. Chugh’s research shows that accepting we’re not always good is necessary for growth. So, it’s better to be “goodish” than good. She discusses being aware of bias, diversity, inclusion, and privilege and acting intentionally on that awareness in everyday life.
Listen to more: Activate World
Taking a “goodish” approach to becoming a better leader
Dr. Dolly Chugh, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at New York University Stern School of Business
Season 4, Episode 2
Jon Mertz: 00:03 Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. We are very excited today to have professor Dolly Chugh with us. She’s an award-winning psychologist and associate professor of management and organizations at the Stern School of Business at New York University. Professor Chugh welcome to Activate World. Give us a snapshot of your background and your key areas of research.
Dolly Chugh: 00:41 Sure. Jon, thank you so much for having me. I come from a business background. I have an MBA and worked in the corporate world for about 11 years. And then in my mid thirties I had an epiphany that I, literally at my MBA reunion had an epiphany that I wanted to be a professor. So I started my career over as a first year PhD student at age 33. And my PhD’s in Social Psychology and Organizational Behavior and the area that I’m most interested in studying is what I call the Psychology of Good People. Basically the puzzle being like, I think I’m a good person, I try to be a good person, I like to be thought of as a good person and yet there’s so many ways on a very daily basis in which I fall short of that standard. My research is about trying to understand why that is and what to do about it.
Jon Mertz: 01:39 Oh, that’s great. I have a number of years on you. I’m in my mid 50s and just started a doctorate program. So I guess at any age you can reinvent yourself. Right?
Dolly Chugh: 01:48 Yeah. That’s amazing. I like that.
Jon Mertz: 01:52 Your research at NYU focuses on implicit bias and I think what is called bounded ethicality?
Dolly Chugh: 01:59 That’s right.
Jon Mertz: 02:00 Can you explain some of these concepts and help us understand how they apply in the business world?
Dolly Chugh: 02:05 Yes. So bounded ethicality is basically a rip off of bounded rationality. Some of your listeners will have heard of bounded rationality, it’s, Nobel Prize winner Herb Simon first coined the term 50 years ago. It refers to the fact that our human mind is, does not have unlimited computing resources and storage, it has to rely on shortcuts. And so there’s all sorts of ways in which our mind clusters things in categories or ignores irrelevant data in order to move through the world. And that’s why lots of times we find ourselves kind of on autopilot, like if some of your listeners listen to your show in the car after a busy day of work, they might walk into the house, to their apartment and realize they don’t even remember the drive home, like they were so into your podcast and so busy thinking about their day at work that they don’t even remember if they had red lights or green lights or, it just was autopilot.
Dolly Chugh: 03:06 That’s all because of bounded rationality, it’s the human mind able to work on autopilot. In any given moment, we take in 11 million pieces of information, but we’re only processing a few dozen pieces of information consciously. The rest of that work is unconscious. So with my advisors and co-authors, Max Bazerman and Margaret Neale, we thought about well, if bounded rationality affects everything from what product you launch or what cereal you buy at the grocery store, how does the same brain work when it comes time to make decisions that have some ethical importance, like who to hire or whether that joke is appropriate to tell or whether that expense is appropriate to put through on your expense report. Those kinds of decisions are being made by the same bounded mind.
Dolly Chugh: 03:59 Bounded ethicality was our way of capturing the same systematic constraints that affect regular decision making also affect ethical decision making. And so what we’ve focused on and what my work continues to focus on now in the book is building some literacy around understanding what those constraints are in our mind, so that we can actually do better. That if we can acknowledge ways in which we fall short, the only way we get better is by acknowledging that we’re not always good.
Jon Mertz: 04:35 In your book you talk about how we should really strive to be a goodish person rather than a good person. Tell us what you mean by that.
Dolly Chugh: 04:42 Yeah. So goodish is my way of capturing the reality base, the science base, the true way the mind works. So we, a lot of us really care, as I said at the start of your program, we care about being a good person. There’s studies of what’s called moral identity and your moral identity is how central is it to you that this identity that you feel like a good person and be seen as a good person. And most of us, on a 1-7 scale, we’re like a four, five, six, seven. We care about this feeling. What the research shows though is that when we get cornered into a really tight definition of what a good person is, like not a sexist, not a racist, not a homophobe, never makes a mistake, never missteps, never misspeaks.
Dolly Chugh: 05:32 That in that very tight corner with an identity we care a lot about, when we do make a mistake and we will, we kind of go into the red zone of defensiveness. We shut down. We don’t learn. We don’t process that mistake and own that mistake and learn from that mistake. We deny the mistake. We cover up the mistake. We, I had these incidents as a professor, where I’ll confuse, I mean this is embarrassing to admit, but I’ll confuse like two students of the same race for each other in front of the entire class where they don’t look alike at all. I mean, there’s no sort of reasonable way to explain it away other than that they’re the same race and gender. And so, my little mental shortcut kind of outed me in that moment and I could sit there and pretend or I could be like, wow, gosh, I really need to do a better job learning who my students are as individuals rather than relying on these race and gender shortcuts.
Dolly Chugh: 06:30 Working our way out of that red zone and defensiveness is hard. But what I’m striving for myself and offering to my readers as well, is the idea that as goodish people, we are in a learning mode not a defensive mode. We’re good persons in that tight corner with no window and nowhere to go when we make a mistake. A goodish person is going to make the mistakes and it’s actually a higher standard because as a goodish person, you own it, you see it and you go, alright, I’m going to do better.
Jon Mertz: 07:01 Yeah. It seems like fear plays a role in trying to be a good person.
Dolly Chugh: 07:05 So much. Yeah. It’s a great insight and it’s the fear of making mistakes. It’s the fear of being judged. It’s the fear of shame. [Amy Edmondson 00:07:13] has wonderful work on what she calls psychological safety and when you’re in an environment or a team or a group or an office with high psychological safety, her original research on this topic was in hospitals and she found that these hospitals that had high psychological safety also had higher error rates. And at first she thought, my God, do we reverse code the data? How can it be more errors with more psychological safety, meaning less fear?
Dolly Chugh: 07:44 And then she realized what’s happening in the hospitals where the fear is high and the psychological safety is low, is they’re covering up the mistakes, they are not even reporting them. Can you imagine what that means, it’s like if two bottles of medicine looks similar and so they get confused for each other and nobody’s documenting that that’s happening, then what’s going to happen is it’s going to repeat over and over and over. No one’s going to learn from that mistake. The system’s not going to change. The error rates are going to look lower because of just as you said, the fear being high. It’s the same on these issues of equity and bias and race and gender, we’re all terrified. We’re in a very tight, good person corner. And as a result, I think the only way to move towards being a better person, is to let go of being a good person.
Jon Mertz: 08:39 I just love the way you connect being a goodish person to having a growth mindset. Talk to us a little bit about that link.
Dolly Chugh: 08:46 Yes, and that’s, I’m so glad you made that link. In fact, from a research, from a science, a social science standpoint, it’s Carol Dweck and colleagues’ research that the whole premise of my book is based on. But Carol Dweck’s work which is beautifully summarized in her book, Mindset basically says that we have a learning mode and we have a performance mode and when we’re in performance mode, we, some of the studies they’ve done that when an error is pointed out, the brain activation patterns that they’re able to measure using neuroscience methods shows that when an error is pointed out, brain activity actually goes down in certain regions of the brain. Which is of course exactly the opposite of what you would want to happen. In contrast when you’re like in a more learning mindset or a goodish mindset in the domain I study, the brain activity goes up when an error is pointed out. So learning is like, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, go, go, go. And so her work is really the platform [crosstalk 00:09:52]-
Jon Mertz: 09:52 In your book, The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias, you discuss confronting difficult issues like sexism, racism, inequality and injustice so that we can become better people.
Dolly Chugh: 10:03 Yeah.
Jon Mertz: 10:04 In that quest to become the way we mean to be, why is it important to look at ourselves first?
Dolly Chugh: 10:09 Well, I think it gets back to this idea of bounded ethicality where you started us. The reality is that no matter who we are, what race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, we are all prone to these errors. This is not limited to one category or demographic of people. We’re all making these mistakes at times and none of us really live up to the ideal vision we have of ourselves, through the eyes of others we’re never quite there. And so the reason we need to start by looking at ourselves is, if we’re going to be in that performance mode, there is the fixed mindset as Carol Dweck calls it, or what I’m describing as like that tight, good person corner. If we’re going to be there, then no learning is going to take place. We’re never going to be able to see ourselves and see where the missteps are because our entire focus is going to be on protecting that identity. We just red zone behavior all the way.
Jon Mertz: 11:11 Yeah. Why is it difficult for some of us to perceive our own bias?
Dolly Chugh: 11:15 Yeah. Well, one reason is that it sometimes benefits us, where the biases that are baked into our schools, in our workplaces, in our communities in some cases actually creates what Debby Irving calls tailwinds for us. In her metaphor, I think it’s so great because I rarely go running, but when I do, when I get myself out there and actually start jogging down the block, there are times where I’m like jogging down the block, you know what, I should do this more often, I’m not bad. I still got it. And then you get to the fire hydrant and for your little turnaround and you start heading home and you realize, oh my God, it’s windy out. The wind is in your face and you’re like, every step is a struggle. And that sort of first half of the run, when I thought I was rocking it, I was really just benefiting from tailwinds and those kinds of tailwinds are hard to see. They’re hard to feel. You don’t even realize it when they’re working in your favor.
Dolly Chugh: 12:19 And so those of us who work in places where other people look like us, or those of us who go to schools where many professors or teachers look like us, those are tailwinds that aren’t always evident to us that are actually acting as headwinds for some of the people around us. And sometimes those headwinds actually have bias baked in to them.
Jon Mertz: 12:45 What might trigger that shift from just tossing bias to taking a stand? And what advice do you have for business leaders in making that shift?
Dolly Chugh: 12:54 One of the ways I’ve been talking about that is being a believer versus being a builder. And I think a lot of us are believers in words like diversity or inclusion. Not everyone, but, as is evident these days, but a lot of us. And so the belief is there that the values are shared, but the building, the actual work of building more egalitarian, more diverse, more inclusive teams, workplaces, communities, neighborhoods, families, schools, that building work is more than just about values, actually acting on it as you said, is the next step. And Joe Lentine, who is currently CEO of a dental insurance business, he’s a white male, Italian American, grew up in a suburb of Detroit, did not have really any exposure to African American neighbors or classmates growing up. And he’s now my age.
Dolly Chugh: 14:05 He’s in his early fifties and he talks about the journey he went through as a young adult as he emerged from high school, started having African American colleagues at work, Asian American colleagues and going to Grad school where he and I were classmates and traveling more. And that’s where the noticing began for him. And the more he noticed, the more he realized, Holy Moly, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that was part of my childhood, jokes people would tell, language they would use that I never even noticed. And now fast forward as CEO of his own business, he’s had some situations, he’s made a very active effort to have a multi-cultural workforce, but he’s also encountered some little pain points along the way and he’s realized that he has to take a stand and has started to do that. So he’s gone from not even seeing it, to being the one to hold people accountable, be willing to take away people’s jobs if needed based on those values. So for me that’s a profound shift from believer to builder. I think he would have always said he was believer, but now he’s truly a builder.
Jon Mertz: 15:20 Early in your book, you talk about generating light. How can we as business leaders generate light?
Dolly Chugh: 15:25 This contrast between heat and light is the idea of different approaches of making change. The kind of changes we’re talking about here and that light-based approaches are more educational based. They, if I’m taking a light-based approach, I’m trying to take into account the comfort of the people, the emotional comfort and the mental comfort of the people I’m trying to influence or persuade to be more inclusive. The contrast is that heat based approaches, which is more confrontational and with the research I was really, this is one of those things I really, genuinely didn’t know until I started researching for the book, is that historians you study, activists and social change in the past, for example, the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, would they’ve shown us that both heat and light are critical for change to happen, that movements that only have light or only have heat don’t move forward as much.
Dolly Chugh: 16:27 And that was fascinating to me. I didn’t really know that. I’m kind of a light-based person. I’m not very good at the heat part. To answer your original question, how do we bring the light? There’s a lot of education we can do. I think, and many people don’t realize the impact they’re having. They confuse intention with impact. Just because I didn’t intend to distribute a sexist reading to my students doesn’t mean I didn’t have the impact of distributing a sexist reading to my students. And so distinguishing, helping people see the difference between intention and impact and exposing them to different perspectives becomes an important step towards people being willing to think about things differently and act differently.
Jon Mertz: 17:18 You see CEOs getting more involved in a lot of social and political issues outside of their business directly, whether it’s the sales force CEO working through gender discrimination or Patagonia with environmental issues and even the other side of employees holding their CEOs accountable on some of those issues. How do you see your work helping CEOs and employees trying to navigate that activist space?
Dolly Chugh: 17:42 Yeah, absolutely. Well, I wrote, I write monthly pieces for forbes.com and my December piece was about PWC’s equivalent of a CEO, their chairman, Tim Ryan and how he’s really been pushing racial equity issues within his firm and then outside his firm. He’s also launched and leads a CEO action, which is a consortium and a coalition of about 500 CEOS. And the thing that I like most about how he’s approaching it and this piece I wrote up really emphasize, was that he’s not getting up on a pedestal and telling everyone else what they need to do differently. What he’s doing is growing along with them. And so on whatever issue it is, it’s unlikely that [Marc Benioff 00:18:38] at sales force hasn’t come in with his own blind spots that have been revealed as he’s done the analysis of the pay differences between genders.
Dolly Chugh: 18:49 And it’s unlikely that Tim Ryan, I actually know because I interviewed him, he will say openly that a few years ago he would have been terrified to have a conversation about race. It was something he never talked about. These CEOs are now openly saying, okay, I’m trying to learn, I’m trying to get better. And I think that that’s going to be the next wave of activism on CEOs parts, is them leading change by holding themselves up as the first place they’re doing the work.
Jon Mertz: 19:25 Well, Professor Chugh, thank you so much for your time. I really did find your book, The Person You Mean To Be; How Good People Fight Bias, to be not only very insightful, but very practical in how it can be a goodish person. I appreciate your time and your perspective on this topic.
Dolly Chugh: 19:41 Oh, Jon, this is such an honor. Thank you so much for reading with such interest and for including me in your great show.
Jon Mertz: 19:56 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
What biases do you recognize in yourself and how are you confronting them?
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Special things to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.