Making the statement “we all stereotype” will probably generate some immediate defensive responses. However, look at the definition of stereotype according to Understanding and Managing Diversity by Carol Harvey and June Allard – stereotype means an overgeneralized belief that categorizes all members of a social identity group as ‘typical’ of that group. Basically we may make assumptions about a person based on general characteristics of a particular group. For example, a heavily tattooed man wearing leather would probably be lumped in with motorcycle riders or ‘bikers’ who have a reputation of being burly and tough. Notice the word reputation, the conjecture that all bikers are burly and tough is prejudicial. Prejudice (as defined by the book) is the use of previous or preconceived attitudes about someone based on his or her group memberships. By believing all bikers are burly and tough, a predetermined idea is developed which then leads to stereotyping.
Why would I state “we all stereotype”? Consciously or subconsciously I believe we do. These stereotypes are based on outward appearance, mannerisms, speech, material things (cars, house, etc.) or other identifying factors. It makes sense to me that as part of our instinctual flight or fight response, we size up our environment. Who is around us? What threat do they pose? What escape should I have? This is a deep-rooted response basic to our core as mammals. The difference between us as humans and other beings on Earth is we have the cognitive ability to choose to act or not on these instincts. In short, we have the ability to decide.
We are bombarded by a literal information overload when it comes to making decisions. Through the news, social media, or even our friends, we are influenced on what we consider ‘right’. If I see someone in the grocery store with five facial piercings and blue hair, my subconscious is making choices and assumptions regarding that person (whether I know it or not) which then influences my emotions or my reactions. It is the conscious part of my brain though that I can control. By choosing to ignore any feelings of fear, distrust or even disgust, I am able to control the stereotype which allows me to act or react differently.
As leaders, we have to watch out for the stereotypes within ourselves and those in our groups. It is easier to control ourselves than it is to control other’s instincts. However, it is imperative that leaders are able to help people break out of that cycle. It can be tough. An idea for leaders is to watch is how people are inter-relating, is it emotional or rational? Emotional leans more towards instinctual and maybe stereotypical. Try to have the group move into rational thought by asking for specifics or examples of concerns or issues. Leaders should to keep in mind is within a group, we don’t always have to agree – in fact life would be boring if we did. We do have to understand and communicate which is why the leader must work to break down stereotypes.
CEO, The Professional Development Team