How to Deal with Stereotypes at Work – 4 Tips

A friend shared this Youtube video with me and I literally cried.  It talks about one stereotype that we all know about and how it affects us.  It’s amazing how stereotypes are so common in our society. Sometimes people use it intentionally in their communication to put down other people out of insecurity and other times people use stereotypes in their conversations and don’t even realize it.

I want to write this post on how to deal with stereotypes at work from both angles

  • How to deal with stereotypes at work – when you are on the receiving end of comments based on stereotypes.
  • How to deal with stereotypes at work – when you are the one speaking in stereotypes – are you even aware of it?

I personally have experienced both and will tell you more about it after this short 3 min video.

Fight like a girlWhen I watched this video the second time to prep for this article, my older daughter was with me.  Her first response was “I don’t get it.”    I was happy she said that.  Just like the younger girls in the video, she is not affected yet by this stereotype.  She is the youngest, most senior Karate member of her class (the orange belt in this photo) and she thinks run like a girl is about running as fast as she can.  I am thankful.

I am not here to talk about this particular stereotype as the video address it powerfully already.  What this video made me realize is that all of us have stereotypes about people in our minds.    If you don’t believe me, try the following

  • When you see a very overweight person walking by you, what are you thinking?
  • When you see two guys holding hands at a bar, what are you thinking?
  • When you hear two Asian ladies talking loudly in their language at a restaurant, what are you thinking?

Whatever came to your minds are stereotypes.  It’s inevitable even when you are the most open minded person out there.  What makes stereotypes dangerous is when you

  • Decide to form an opinion about that person as a result
  • Decide to communicate to that person directly or indirectly based on that opinion and stereotype

Well, you may say, “I don’t do that, especially at work.  That’s unprofessional.  It’s even written in the professional conducts manual of  every major company.”  I would say that’s probably true of the commonly known stereotypes.  Comments based on gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, etc are strictly forbidden in the workplace.

What about stereotypes we are not aware of?  Here are some comments that I have heard of in the workplace that are also based on stereotypes.  What do you think of these?

  • “He is a lifer” – refers to someone who has been at my current company for many years.  The implication when someone says this is unusually condescending, meaning
    • He probably cannot get a job elsewhere.
    • He is no longer a go-getter
    • He will not want to rock the boat.
  • “You are a consultant, therefore…” – I have heard this a lot from almost every one of my jobs.  Besides the harmless jokes, clients, co-workers, and even friends have used this line on me to imply I am less capable.  For example,
    • Therefore don’t know how to execute
    • Therefore don’t know how to run a real business
    • Therefore don’t have any original thoughts
  • “She is a bottoms up person ….” or “She is a top down person.” – These are another stereotypes I have heard about me or others to imply the following
    • Bottom up person – doesn’t see big picture / aren’t strategic
    • Top down person – doesn’t understand details / feet doesn’t touch the ground
  • “He is ENFJ, therefore..”  If you are familiar with Meyers Briggs, then you recognize these letters.   These four letters are just an example.  They could say any combination of the possible outcome of a Meyers Briggs test.   Companies are increasingly using these assessments to help the employees understand themselves and assess their career paths.   That’s all great.  Where this can become a stereotype is when co-worker uses the result in a sentence to justify an opinion about another co-worker
    • “You are ISTJ, therefore I know you would set a detailed agenda for our meeting.”
    • “You are ESFJ.  That explains why you are so over-invested in building relationship.”

These are just a few examples.  If you think about it, subtle stereotypes are all around us.  Any time you generalize a person’s behavior to put them in a group of people, you are forming a stereotype.  What is the harm of these stereotypes? Here is the harm.

  1. It can be very condescending – Whoever says these stereotypes in their conversation is trying to feel superior about themselves, intentionally or unintentionally.
  2. It can make people feel powerless to change their perception – Just like gender or race or sexual orientation, whatever the generalization we received in a stereotype, we cannot change it.   I cannot change that I was a consultant for many years or the fact my Meyer Briggs is XXXX just as equally that I cannot change that I am woman and Asian.

Here is how to deal with stereotypes at work.  When you are on the receiving end of these comments, it is up to you to decide how to interpret and respond.  Here are 4 tips.

  1. Let it go – Most people are unaware when they use subtle generalizations in their conversation.  When it’s used toward you for the first time, just let it go.  It’s not worth the energy to address it.  Sometimes focusing on something minor actually makes it more legitimate.  So just ignore it and move on.
  2. Raise awareness –  I f it’s happening more than once or twice, then it’s important to address it especially if you feel like it’s condescending or trapped by the comments.   It’s useless to get defensive or angry.   Instead stay calm and ask them a question to raise their awareness.  For example, you can say “I know I was a consultant for a long time.  I cannot change that past.  Are you saying that you don’t think I can ever run a business?”  This kind of question will put the other person on notice to raise their awareness of what they just said to you.  Most people will back off what they say as a response and perhaps think twice before they use this kind of comment with you again.
  3. Change your perspective and know your self-worth:  At the end of the day, you can never change other people.  Even after pushing back, they may still keep doing it.  A person’s comment may come across condescending but you don’t have to accept their comments as the truth.  Sometimes people use these generalization thinking it helps them explain their rationale.  Other time people are using it to feel superior.  Either way, it’s their problem that they are naive or insecure.  Don’t take people’s words literally.  It is up to you to decide whether what someone says is valid.  I know this is not easy but just realize that you can always choose whether you take anyone’s comments seriously.  I have been a consultant for many years and were told “consultants cannot execute.”  Well,  I am hired in a role now where execution is my main job and I know I am good at it.
  4. Be aware of your own communications – You have to work with other people every day, people with different backgrounds, career paths, life stories, and communication styles.  Be the most aware when you are in a situation where you feel insecure either because you are new to it or because someone’s communication put you on the defense.  Either way, this is the most likely time you will want to “defend” yourselves and perhaps use generalization as a method to “retaliate” and prove your own points.  Resist the temptation.  It is up to all of us to become better people and better colleagues.

If you remember nothing else, remember this – Stereotyping is an expression of insecurity.  Part of the reason I write this post is to raise my own awareness.  We generalize often to make sense of things in life and work.  It is human nature as we are surrounded by all different kinds of people.  Enjoy that diversity even when you disagree as it’s what makes work and life interesting.  Let’s work together to get rid of the stereotypes we have in our own minds and those around us in the work place.

Your comments: Do you notice any subtle stereotyping in your or others’ communication at work?  How does it affect you?   How do you deal with it?  I look forward to your comments.

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Best wishes to a fulfilling career and life!


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