Home Leadership The Starbucks Incident: An Example of Hidden Biases
The Starbucks Incident: An Example of Hidden Biases

The Starbucks Incident: An Example of Hidden Biases

Start a management degree at American Public University.

By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management, American Public University

If you haven’t been following the news, a “situation” occurred recently at a Starbucks coffee shop in the heart of Philadelphia.

Two African-American men were seated inside waiting for a friend. According to media accounts, when the men asked to use the bathroom, the manager said they had to purchase something first. They refused.

The manager then asked the two men to leave. When they refused, noting that they were awaiting a friend, the manager called 911. The police took the two men away in handcuffs, allegedly for trespassing.

Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson issued an apology, calling the incident “reprehensible.” He then flew to Philadelphia to meet with the two men.

I spent some time reading articles on such situations. I found what Peter Senge refers to as the “Ladder of Inference.” The Ladder of Inference is the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The stages are like rungs on a ladder.

What Is the Ladder of Inference?

The “Ladder of Inference” was first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris. It was described by MIT systems scientist Peter Senge in his article, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.” The concept refers to how people arrive at the wrong conclusion, based on assumptions that are usually embedded in their beliefs and values.

What does the ladder look like? Starting at the bottom (rung) of the ladder, we have reality and facts. From there, we:

  • Experience reality and facts selectively, based on our beliefs and prior experience.
  • Interpret what they mean.
  • Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without considering them.
  • Draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and our assumptions.
  • Develop beliefs based on these conclusions.
  • Take actions that seem “right” because they are based on what we believe.

This method of reasoning creates a vicious circle. Our beliefs play a major role in how we select our reality and lead us to ignore facts. Soon, we jump to conclusions by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process.

Public Reactions Vary to Starbucks Incident

Referring to the Starbucks incident, the comments I read on LinkedIn included:

  • “I think someone should always purchase something if they go into a business.”
  • “The men were trespassing; the police have to act on a trespassing complaint from a business. The manager had a right to be concerned given the rate of robberies committed by young black men in the area.”

The first comment assumed that the men were not going to make a purchase. If the commentator had read some of the news articles about the incident, she would have realized that the two men were waiting for their friend (who showed up about the time the police arrived).

My response to that comment was, “How often have you ever arrived at an establishment and waited for your guests before ordering?” Also, white patrons challenged the manager. They asked her why the two black men were being held to a different standard when some other patrons were just sitting around the shop, too.

The answer to that question is probably more in line with the second comment. That commentator justified the manager’s action based on perception.

Managers Should Do More than the Status Quo

I no longer believe behavior modification and conditioning is the key (or solution) to good management. To tackle these deep-rooted biases, we have to get to the core of the bias problem, which may reside in the individual’s subconscious. We have to explore cognitive approaches in conjunction with behavioral approaches.

The Neuroleadership Summit and the work of David Rock would be a good start. He and his colleagues have developed the SEEDS Model, designed to uncover hidden/unconscious biases and deal with them.

The SEEDS Model simplifies roughly 150 identified cognitive biases and recognizes five categories of biases. Each category responsive to a different set of actions that will help mitigate the wrong behavior. Let’s find those hidden/unconscious biases and nip them in the bud!

If I had the opportunity to personally speak with Starbucks’ Johnson, I would urge him to be a disruptor and fight against doing what is considered the status quo. Think outside the box and do more than tweak what simple remedy is in existence. (In fact, his decision to fly across the country to meet with the offended men and apologize in person is an example of the right behavior.)

Somehow, an unprepared manager was positioned in one of Johnson’s locations. Clearly, she was not the best fit for management given her bias, which did not manifest itself until a perceived threat unfolded.

Starbucks Incident Offers Teachable Moment in Preparing Managers for Conflict

The Starbucks incident ties into how well we prepare our managers, especially for crisis situations.

Think about it. How well are the managers in your organization trained to deal with chaos in the midst of conflict? We have too many management development programs that are focused on awareness rather than how to make the proper decisions, especially during conflict.

For there to be a notable change and no recurrences of such incidents, we must re-design management development programs to highlight real-life scenarios that appear as “gray areas” to our employees. Starbucks appears to be doing just that. The company announced on Tuesday that it will close more than 8,000 stores in the United States on May 29 for an afternoon of “racial-bias education.”

The Starbucks announcement said “the curriculum will focus on how employees can recognize and address their own biases to prevent future discrimination.”

We must give credit to the company for its attempt to address the public and reach out to the community in a swift manner. Hopefully, the experts will be able to assist the organization with making effective, lasting changes in the organization’s culture, especially as it relates to dealing with a diverse customer base.

Once we have people being authentic about their biases, only then can we get to the heart of the matter and make lasting changes in behavior.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.



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