1300 words: 7 – minute read

Which bit of the me described below creates a positive or negative reaction in you?

I am a white, middle-aged, slightly overweight, straight male born in working class South Wales.

I was an accountant before I became a coach.

I’ve been divorced twice, was a father at age 20, became estranged from my two biological daughters for 24 years, and have step children and grandchildren.

I see myself as a spiritual person rather than a religious one.

Apart from speeding fines I’ve never been in trouble with the police.

I’ve suffered from depression.

In my spare time I like to watch rugby and football and read, or increasingly listen to podcasts, on subjects like politics, philosophy and business.

You wouldn’t be alone if the white middle-aged male bit is setting off alarm bells in your head. It’s often associated with “privilege” I note. On the other hand your inner warning bells may be silent on this aspect of me.

What about me being Welsh? Conjuring up thoughts about being narrow-minded chapel goers, warm people who love to sing, proud rugby fans or arrogant ones?

Does my accountancy background prompt thoughts about me being cautious, creative or crooked?

Perhaps you connect the absence of religion in my life with the two divorces, the estrangement and the depression. Maybe you think because I like philosophy, I’m not very practical.

We’re all prone to stereotyping

We’re all prone to stereotyping others. When we have limited information about someone’s identity (as in my case above,) we fill in the gaps about their character with generalities, stories and the prior histories we carry round with us.

Stereotyping operates like a mental shortcut, providing us with meaning in the absence of enough information. And according to Nobel prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it’s a cognitive bias that makes us irrational when making decisions.

A stereotype is a widely-adopted thought about specific types of individuals, or certain ways of behaving, intended to represent the group as a whole. All English people have a stiff upper lip for example. It’s biased because it may or may not accurately reflect reality.

When we’re caught up in stereotyping, we tend to:

  • Notice flaws in others more easily than we notice them in ourselves

Ever heard this “Builders always think practically but architects never do.”

  • See the world around us objectively and believe people who disagree must be uninformed

I often hear architects say this: Constructors’ designers are only interested in build cost not context and aesthetic.”

  • Believe decisions taken by a group reflect the preferences of each group member

Ever looked at a project’s steering group and without speaking to its members individually thought “The group doesn’t steer; it gets bogged down in the detail and members miss the impact rising levels of disputes have on costs and delays.”

  • Misread out-group and in-group colleagues

We think those not in our group do well by chance and poorly because of their personalities, whereas in-group members do well because of their personality and badly by chance or bad luck. For example thinking “British engineers are better than their Chinese or US counterparts” closes down potential to learn from others.

  • Discard specifics and stick with generalities

We attribute qualities to a member of a certain social group irrespective of what they say or do. Whenever our sentences begin with a “yes.. but…” we’re prone to this. A comment like “Yes, I hear you when you say you’re entrepreneurial, but you’re an engineer from an alpha male-dominated construction industry that doesn’t do innovation well” is a case in point.

  • Believe those in authority always know best

We attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure – unrelated to its content – and so are more influenced by that opinion. When I ask people if they feel psychologically safe on a project and can say what they need to say their response is often “It depends on the client, what they say goes, nothing changes until they do.”

  • Favour output from automated decision-making systems and ignore contradictory evidence

Think spell checkers, sat-navs and performance reports etc. as examples of automated decision making systems. Ever heard this in a project review meeting? “I know the performance and risk stats say everything’s fine and purport to be the sole version of the truth, but they’re not the whole picture. People have grave-concerns they don’t feel they can express for fear of being scapegoated.”  

  • Follow suit

Our rate of uptake in ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. The probability of one person following suit increases with respect to the proportion that already have. This is encapsulated in “Everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t we?”

Blame makes the problems worse

Though I understand the temptation to blame people for their biases, this only compounds the problem. When the stereotype we’ve assigned to the person we’re interacting with meets the one they believe we’re operating from, the potential to reinforce an “us vs. them situation” is high.

In effect we can end up relating to the labels we attach to someone else’s identity more than we do the content of their character. This can be costly: just think how many decisions are affected by it.

Employees: Let stereotyping affect your recruitment and promotion decisions and you soon run into the problem of overlooking talented people, placing others into roles for which they’re not ideally suited and not attracting the calibre of people you need.

Clients: Get caught up in internal stories about how the client is always right or has all the power and you curtail your ability to listen to what they really need and win bids.

Project partners: Let bias and irrational behaviour colour design, novation, project monitoring and dispute resolution and small problems soon escalate into larger, costlier ones that cause delay.

What you see is what they get

When you’re next in front of someone who has a different ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, physical and mental capability to you, or they’re simply from a different professional discipline, notice what pops into your mind.

Do old, familiar stories appear that filter what you listen for? Do you find yourself dwelling on the fact they’re not like you and tell yourself about the differences – man vs. woman, boss vs. worker, white vs. person of colour, this profession vs. that etc? Or do you meet them from a place of curiosity, wondering who they really are, what they think about the issues at hand and what you could accomplish together?

Whatever you see in your mind’s eye determines how you subsequently behave and therefore what the other person ‘gets’ from you. Noticing it brings what’s usually unconscious into awareness. And from there wondering if it’s helpful or not to the situation at hand becomes possible. You realise the power to avoid stereotyping lies with you.

As humans we all have a capacity to think. Seen from that perspective we start from an equal place. How we use it of course differs, which brings diversity. Thank goodness! How would we survive if we all thought the same way?

We’ve evolved as social animals: isolation isn’t natural to us, inclusion matters to our sense of belonging and how we function.

No matter what our identity consists of on the outside, any one of us can feel the absence of equality, diversity and inclusion on the inside. The question is what do we do with that feeling. Believe it’s real, caused by others and fight back? Or create the conditions where healthy curiosity about the biases, assumptions and stereotypes we all operate from can be brought to the surface?

The former wastes time and energy. The latter may take a little longer to begin with, but makes overcoming the challenges before us much easier, in the long term.

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