Discrimination in the workplace is illegal. Period. Yet the impact of increasing diversity is that you are in more and more situations that have a bit more subtle dynamic. You might not be making hiring or promotion decisions about a person, but you and your company’s culture might be making and reflecting assumptions about him or her that are not accurate and not fair.  Ultimately, if unchecked, mindlessness and stereotypes in your business can lead to unplanned turnover, reduced productivity, and even costly lawsuits.

Ellen Langer, Ph.D. of Harvard University, has written a lot about mindlessness and its impact on daily living. This post deals with one application of the concept of mindlessness – that of stereotypes that we apply to people. For example:

  • Wearing hiphop attire – must be a criminal
  • Wearing a suit – must be a manager
  • Certain color of skin – must be smart, stupid, poor, greedy, wealthy, overly emotional, an alcoholic, etc.
  • Over a certain age – must be old-fashioned and closed-minded
  • Under a certain age – must be stupid, impulsive, and glued to technology

You get the idea, and you also know that the list is far longer than the one above. The point is this: it’s less work for us to be mindless and make assumptions about what certain factors mean than it is for us to invest the time and energy to really get to know somebody. They might have the outward appearance of a thug and the heart of a poet once we have a chance to get acquainted. (Or they might look like a solid citizen, yet have the values of a criminal!)

Stereotypes aren’t necessarily negative. A friend’s daughters were born in China, and she recounts how many times people have said things to her like, “You know THEY are all really smart,” or “I’ve heard THEY’RE all good in math.” Perhaps it’s better that her children are benefiting in a way from a positive expectation, because it is possible that they’ll attempt to rise to meet it. On the other hand, the expectations can be overwhelming and lead to perfectionism, frustration, etc. if left unchallenged.

There’s been recurring debate about whether racism, ageism, sexism, and all of the other-isms have waned as our society has become more aware of them. The answer to the question depends upon where you sit. We might have heightened our sensitivity, but at the same time we’ve heightened our desire for speed and efficiency. You can’t just apply the principles of cycle time reduction on the process of really getting to know someone. It is still tempting to risk breaking our legs jumping to conclusions about who or what somebody is based on first impressions or limited information.

And the more experience we have at placing people into categories, however arbitrary, the bigger the risk that we won’t take the time with someone in the future. I might think I am open-minded about someone from a “category” that I’ve never experienced before, but I quickly begin racking up observations that I might automatically apply to the next person who appears to fit the mold. The next person I meet might fall victim to my mindless pigeon-holing of them before they say even one word to me.

If your primary motivators are efficiency and self-protection, then you might be relying on stereotypes more than you realize. If, however, you shift your focus to opportunity and relationship building you have a shot at becoming more mindful and giving THIS person a real opportunity to know and be known by you.

Which argument for greater mindfulness about stereotypes is more compelling to you? Are you more concerned about relating to a diverse group of people, or are you more focused on preventing costs and lawsuits? Your answer reveals your values on this

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