THE BLOG
06/26/2013 10:56 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Paula Deen and The Food Network: Why Jumping to Conclusions Won't Work

Have you ever had people write you off based on a first impression? Or maybe you've done it to others?

By now most of us have heard about the hoopla surrounding Paula Dean's testimony that, many years ago, she used a racial slur pertaining to black people. As a result of this honest admission under oath, her show has been cancelled by The Food Network, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, which has Deen's restaurants in some of its casinos, and publisher Ballantine, which has a new Deen book scheduled to roll out this fall, have stated they will "monitor the situation," and her fans and admirers are in an uproar over all of it. Furthermore, a number of her employees have made similar allegations against Deen's company.

There's something very wrong with us when we leap to conclusions about others before we have all the facts. People who work for Deen may or may not be guilty of treating black people badly -- we'll have to wait and see. But leaping before we look is not just a problem in our personal lives, but in our professional ones, too. And it can backfire...

My feeling is that The Food Network was very foolish to judge Deen so harshly without first considering the ramifications of their actions, as well as waiting for the facts to emerge. But Deen's video was not well thought out, nor was her decision to cancel on Matt Lauer. Knee-jerk reactions from all sides only made a bad situation worse.

Jumping to conclusions is a form of cognitive distortion. It means that a person will make a negative assumption when it is actually not supported by any facts.

I believe we do this for at least one (or more) of the following reasons:

1. We're reactionary - As opposed to developing our intuition with knowledge and experience (aka, our gut instincts), we rely on irregular and erratic emotions. (Note to Food Network: you might want to consider this one.)
2. We have faulty sensors - Our perceptions are drowned by narrow ways of thinking.
3. We're selfish - We want others to understand our flaws, but sit back and judge those same people for theirs.
4. We're mind readers - We assume we have access to special knowledge of the intentions or thoughts of others, taking comments, looks and behaviors out of context.
5. We're fortune tellers - Our inflexible natures set up expectations for how things will turn out, even before they happen.
6. We love to label - Over generalizations are rampant. Not everyone within any group behaves the same way.

I other words, "one shoe don't fit all."

If an employee behaves badly, it's up to others to make sure the boss (in this case, Deen) is aware of it. Not speaking out due to "fear of backlash" is just another way of passing the buck. Anyone who has seen the rage from Deen's fans all over the Internet should be able to figure that one out.

Another illustration of the harm jumping to conclusions can cause was made by author Cheryl Hamilton. In her book, Communicating for Results: A Guide for Business and the Professions, she made some good points about jumping to conclusions on the job:

  • When interviewing people, it's easy for us to jump to conclusions, often resulting in a "costly hiring error due to false inference." We should always ask for clarification as we investigate.
  • During a conversation, an employee avoiding eye contact while being questioned over a missing item may suggest their guilt to the crime, or it may also suggest other things such as their embarrassment at their integrity being questioned."
  • Even if this employee does shows signs of guilt -- sweating and avoiding answers, for example -- we are still making an assumption when we link this behavior to the theft.
  • Assumptions like this can result in big problems (as we see in the case of Deen) if pursued without the evidence to back it up.
  • While we all jump to conclusion by making inferences and assumptions, we must always remain aware that we are basing our decisions on an assumption which has a degree of risk associated with it.
  • When people are unaware that they have jumped to conclusions and think that their assumptions are actually facts, dangerous mistakes are much more likely to occur.

The Food Network jumped into very muddy water when it dumped Paula Dean too quickly. There's nothing worse than being condemned before we get the facts. And more so when we condemn others for past mistakes, especially when they've not been repeated. Whatever happens, Deen and the network will have to accept personal responsibility for their actions.

So ask yourself: Do you take responsibility for your actions? Are you so sure about yourself that you can make a value judgment about others? Are you ready to be judged like Paula Deen? I welcome your thoughts on this issue, as well about Ms. Deen herself.

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