Stereotyping

I wanted this article to start out direct and undiluted to ensure that you understand the gravity of the message. By the end of the article, I hope you will understand why.

Stereotyping in leadership means making decisions about people based on just a few traits or a single trait associated with a demographic group. A demographic group could be race, religion, ethnicity, personality, generation or any number of broad categorical groups one may be a member of.

The reason to avoid this is twofold: you will likely err because stereotypes fail to predict in day-to-day contexts, and those who are stereotyped will know they are being stereotyped. Avoiding stereotyping due to the former reason should be a no-brainer – good leaders always want to make the best decisions.

Direction

The second reason however is insidious because it can artificially limit your human resources, change the culture of your workplace in a negative way, and you may not even be aware until the damage is done. When it comes to how we view others, not only do we tend to see what we expect to see, but we are also wired to meet expectations – AKA Self-Fulfilling Prophesy, Stereotype Threat.

We are very good at detecting when we are the target of stereotyping. Whether the stereotype is positive or negative, most people are uncomfortable when being stereotyped – if anything, it encroaches on one’s individuality.

This ability to detect stereotyping is part of a suite of social functions that persist from our life-and-death instincts from thousands of years ago. Those who were lacking such social function during those millennia probably didn’t live long enough to procreate.

What this means is that most of us have inherited this social nature, which is deeply primal and deeply important. Our social nature can be incompatible with civil society because the world today is vastly different – and it is the culprit behind the most elusive social problems. What this means is that when we detect being a target of stereotyping, we can become demotivated.

The flip side of this issue is our drive to categorize. When it comes to people, at the very minimum we are driven to categorize others as friend and foe. Overall, we like the world to fit into neat and simple packages especially when it comes to other people. This is why we stereotype others. It is a human phenomenon and we’d do well as leaders to understand and overcome it in ourselves.

Package

Good leaders always strive to understand themselves and others – and understanding individuals rather than groups serves to dilute our need to stereotype. Even good intentions tend to have bad outcomes when it comes to stereotyping.

For instance, let’s take a look at generational training. I could bore you by criticizing it for the lack of scientific rigor or its self-fulfilling and self-evidencing qualities, but I won’t. Instead I will just say that it is as inaccurate as race and gender stereotypes and even though the intent may be under the auspice of “please understand me”, due to our nature to stereotype, it can cause more harm than good.

In general, the theory fails to predict anything, and in a country such as the U.S. that is already age averse, it can fuel further age discrimination.

Now that we have established the whole business of stereotyping as a foolish enterprise, you may wonder what you can do to avoid it. I would be remiss and irresponsible if I didn’t offer some ideas that may help.

Here are six steps that I’ve used to reduce my tendency to stereotype:

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Accept and Decide

Accept that you are human and, as such, you will have some tendency to stereotype. Just because you believe in a stereotype doesn’t make it true. Even though you may believe you are fair, you may be more biased than you think. You are human, and stereotyping is a human tendency. You will need to admit this and strive to avoid it. Accepting that you may need to change is the first and most important step. Then decide you will strive to change.

Have Courage

Any change requires courage. Have the courage to admit that you’re wrong, even if it means you cannot save face. Be honest first and foremost with yourself, and extend honesty to others in each and every social context in which you engage. We tend to develop a pattern of social behaviors or a persona that may get in the way of change. We need to detect when our social identity conflicts with fairness and honesty.

Catch Yourself

Accepting, deciding, and having courage is important, but it may not be enough. You will need to build skills to help you change. This means you will need to learn to catch yourself. Having a family member, colleague, or friend partner with you can help kickstart this. For instance, make an agreement that each of you will try to catch and notify each other when making stereotyping comments. This will help build the skill of real-time self-introspection – catching yourself in the moment.

Reprogram Yourself

One of the best ways to reprogram yourself so this tendency doesn’t rule you is by getting to know a person as an individual. Understanding others and empathizing is a big part of this. Look at them for their humanity and learn about what is important to them, the things they like to do, and what their lives are like outside of work– learn about their families.

Program

See them as people with dreams and goals, and strengths and weakness. Overall, view them as fellow human beings – a brother or sister in the human family. And above all, be genuine.

Practice

Practice doesn’t just make perfect, it makes permanent. Once you decide you want to change – and have the guts to focus on this change even if you cannot save face, you simply practice. Eventually your practice will become habit and you are on your way to becoming a more effective leader.

Have Patience, Persevere

Once you’ve decided and vowed to change, enlisting courage and working to reprogram yourself with practice, you must next vow to never give up. Have patience because this is a process – you may have to deprogram years and even decades of habits – habits of perception and how you view others.

Habits are easy for us and take little energy to execute – and we are driven to rely on habit. Thus, you may find yourself frustrated and feel you should have just changed instantly. You may feel if you were a good person you would change. So don’t worry; it often takes time. If you are genuine, and are working these steps, you will eventually be victorious over yourself.

How Do You Reduce Stereotyping as a Leader?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
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