Overcoming Stereotypes at Work

Sick of being seen as an "emotional woman" any time you bring a problem to the table? Tired of feeling "unmanly" when you empathize with a co-worker? Seeing signs of ageism among employees? Use these tips to overcome - and eliminate - stereotypes at your workplace:

Most people aren't aware of the ways stereotypes impact and influence their thinking. In fact, most of us believe our perceptions are based on objective observations. Stereotypes are essentially shortcuts taken by our brains: Snap judgments based on easily identifiable characteristics like age, gender and race. Making snap judgments is a human tendency, but the practice becomes problematic when we apply those judgments beyond that first instant.

Letting your judgments continue leads to bias, or the belief that a stereotype is true. For example, believing that millennials are lazy and entitled can lead to a reluctance to hire young workers. A belief that men are more naturally assertive and better at taking charge can lead to disproportionate promotions of men in the workplace.

While there are some unsavory people who carry biases to the extreme - blatant racists, sexists and ageists, for example - the vast majority of issues relating to stereotypes are not purposeful. However, unintentional biases rooted in stereotypes still lead to problems. That's why it is so important for people to identify stereotypes and overcome them, whether on the giving or receiving end of such judgments.

Stereotypes Are Bad for Business

There are lots of stereotypes that have found their way into the modern workplace. Here are just a few that could be impacting your organization:

  • Stereotypes about men: They are more assertive; they take charge; they are better at math and science; they aren't focused on their families; they are not emotional; they are not empathetic.

  • Stereotypes about women: They are too emotional; they can't be good employees if they have children; they aren't assertive; they are natural caregivers.

  • Stereotypes about millennials: They are entitled, lazy and want to live at home forever; they want to be the CEO when they are really entry level; they know lots about technology.

  • Stereotypes about baby boomers: They don't understand technology; they can't "keep up" with younger workers; they are selfish.

  • Race-related stereotypes: Certain races are lazy; certain races are naturally good at math and science; certain races are too religious; certain races are less intelligent; certain races are more intelligent.

Stereotypes in the workplace are just bad for business, and they can ultimately lead to problems like:

  • Low employee morale
  • Employee turnover
  • Poor retention levels
  • Lost sales and customers
  • A negative employment reputation
  • Difficulty recruiting new employees, including management and top-level employees
  • Decreased productivity and profitability
  • Discrimination claims and costly litigation

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Breaking down - and hopefully eliminating - stereotypes in the workplace begins by acknowledging that they exist and addressing them. Addressing stereotypes directly can reduce bias by helping people learn more about each other as individuals rather than categorizing groups by race, age or gender.

It can take a lot of work to break down stereotypes, but someone must be willing to speak up and tackle them head-on. If, for example, a male gets chided by other male co-workers for being too "womanly" by empathizing with a peer, it's up to that man to step up and point out that empathy is a positive trait for any human to exhibit. If a woman gets unfairly accused of being too emotional, she should ask her co-worker exactly why they think her reaction is "emotional," as opposed to rational.

Bringing stereotypes to the surface can be uncomfortable, so it's important to be direct without being too confrontational. It can be difficult to hold a mirror up to someone and force them to look at their own biases, especially when those biases are unintentional. You can help people start a productive dialogue by:

  • Pointing out that differences among people are what make the world an interesting place to live.
  • Asking other people questions about their experiences, their knowledge, etc., to start a dialogue.
  • Sharing your own experiences, knowledge, etc.
  • Trying to find common ground with someone you think has made unfair judgments about you. Forming a connection helps them see you as a whole person.
  • Having empathy for the person expressing a stereotype or bias. They may not have had exposure to people of your background before.

If you approach interactions as a conversation and a chance to learn rather than a confrontation, you'll get much farther.