How To Reduce Stereotyping In The Workplace
By Mark Swartz
You’re about to meet a new colleague who’ll be working closely with you. All you know about them so far is their name.
Yet you’ve already started pre-judging them automatically. Is their name male or female? (Gender stereotypes.) Familiar or foreign sounding? (Ethnic, racial or nationality stereotypes.) Perceptions pop into your head without really think about it.
Soon you’ll be introduced for the first time. The person’s appearance and voice will trigger more ingrained suppositions. Will you look beyond surface impressions, or be prisoner to long-held biases?
The Essence of Stereotypes
Our minds are busy creatures. They look for shortcuts to reduce thought clutter. So we make big assumptions about people based on small bits of data – their skin colour, sexual orientation or accent, for example.
From each little detail we try to make meaningful predictions. Overweight people probably lack discipline, right? Gorgeous women don’t have to be smart. Tall men make excellent leaders.
Stereotypes capture our collected, often unexamined beliefs about specific traits. They may have some merit or, in many cases, be completely wrong. One thing for sure is that they’re overgeneralizations that can be very persistent.
Are They Helpful or Harmful?
Many stereotypes are mild and harmless. So what if you think people with nose-rings are likely to be more creative? Or that folks who have disabilities work hard to overcome barriers. You’re probably right.
Trouble lurks when assumptions are frequently applied to entire groups. That’s lazy thinking. It can prevent you from seeing people as individuals with all their uniqueness.
More problematic are biases that lead to discrimination. Imagine being the only minority at work. Bigotry would rob you of your right to prove yourself on personal merit. You’d miss all sorts of opportunities if people shunned your otherness reflexively.
Factors That Can Make You More Prejudiced
Prejudice involves relying on stereotypes when deciding how to treat people. We literally pre-judge “their kind” and act in a programmed manner.
Being raised in a household filled with biases can influence your tendency to typecast. Beliefs normalized at family meals and discussions creep into your system. A firsthand experience that reinforces a stereotype confirms your preconception. You may be convinced that everyone “like that” is the same.
Having our beliefs questioned or proven incorrect can be uncomfortable. So we choose to engage with selected friends, news sources and social media. The views we expose ourselves to often reflect our existing dogmas. In psychology that’s known as confirmation bias. Living in an echo chamber means seldom having to face opposing notions.
Acknowledging Your Biases
Step one in relying less on stereotypes is to consciously identify yours. It’s a matter of monitoring your thoughts when you hear an ethnic last name, see a skin color, hear an accent, view a disability, learn that a person is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, etc.
Are you surprised by some of the wrong assumptions you lean on? Think of them as broken crutches impeding your personal growth or professional progress.
Now test how true your preconceptions are. As you get to know someone new, consciously compare your initial judgments to who that person really is. Does that Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Wiccan boss of yours always behave as you’d expected? If not, set aside the inhibiting ideas.
Trading In Stereotypes for Truths
There’s more to you than meets the eye. That goes for other people too. But if you only focus your gaze on traits that confirm your biases, that’s what you’ll perceive.
Stereotyping is a habit. Since it’s learned through repetition it can be unlearned through practice. Take off the blinders and begin to appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of others.