From Bias to Balance: Challenging Workplace Stereotypes

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From Bias to Balance: Challenging Workplace Stereotypes

Have you ever been bothered by someone’s words or by behaviour that seemed unfair? These might have stayed in your mind for a few hours or even days. You wondered: ”Is this true? Is this how I am?” or ”Why did they treat me like that?”

Sometimes people may make incorrect assumptions about us, and we can do the same with others. They may be judgmental or attribute qualities or traits to us without any valid reasons.

These assumptions can be stereotypes, preconceived notions, or beliefs that we hold about certain groups of people based on characteristics such as gender, race, age, profession, social and economic status, educational background, etc.

Other people’s assumptions have nothing to do with us because these were formed in their minds, based on the information and experiences they had. A different person may have had a totally different opinion about the same situation or had a totally different reaction because they have different ‘lenses’. So, we can ask ourselves ”What made that person say those things? What’s happening within them that’s causing them to say or do that thing?”

So, our minds don’t always work in our favour. Because of our incorrect assumptions, we can make mistakes and take wrong decisions.

What Can We Do To Eliminate More Of The Biases In Our Minds? 

This is important not only in our personal lives but also in the workplace. When we make incorrect assumptions about others, we can hire or promote the wrong person, distribute responsibilities in a way that is inequitable or inefficient, or make unfair decisions that lead to employee frustrations and lower motivation, among other things. Also, if we allow team members to judge each other or act based on false beliefs, their relationships will suffer and the work environment will not be safe and supportive. Of course, this will affect their motivation and work results.

There are many types of biases, but in this blog post, we’ll focus on biases produced by stereotypes. We’ll discuss different types of stereotypes that can occur in the workplace and how we can prevent them.

Before we do that, to make it easier to understand how stereotypes work, let’s talk a little bit about how we attribute meaning to things, behaviors, or actions.

How We Make Attributions

Attribution  is the process through which we give meaning to our own and other people’s experiences and behaviours. Because we are looking to understand them, we are searching for their causes, their sources. 

Sometimes, these attribution may be accurate and other times these may be  incorrect. 

This process is important because the meaning that we give to things impact our actions and behaviours. When we misjudge a person,  misunderstood a situation or a person’s behaviour, we may jump saying things that are not true, we may put labels, treated them unfairly or take other actions that are based on false assumptions and data.

A tendency that is present when we make attributions is our inclination to make them in a way that keep our existing beliefs and knowledge valid, in a way that doesn’t contradict them. We avoid cognitive dissonance. We avoid having contradictory thoughts and believes. 

The attribution process stays underneath cognitive biases like stereotypes, rationalization ( a cognitive process through which individuals justify or explain their thoughts, actions, or decisions in a way that aligns with their desired outcomes or beliefs, even if those justifications may not be entirely accurate or objective), confirmation bias (the human tendency to seek out, interpret, and remember information in a way that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs, opinions, and expectations) appear. 

We Make Internal and External Attributions

Internal Attribution: This is when we explain the behaviour or actions of a person based on their personal characteristics, traits, or disposition. When making an internal attribution, we attribute someone’s actions to their inherent qualities or choices. For example, if someone succeeds in a task, we attribute their success to their skill, effort, or competence.

External Attribution: This involves explaining the behaviour or actions of a person based on external factors or situational circumstances. When making an external attribution, we attribute someone’s actions to factors beyond their control. For instance, if someone fails to complete a task, we attribute their failure to the difficulty of the task or to unforeseen obstacles.

Research shows that there are differences between the attributions that we make for our behaviours and those made for other people’s behaviours. We tend to attribute external causes to our own behaviours and internal causes to other people’s behaviours.

Our expectations influence how we make attributions. Unexpected successes or failures tend to be explained through external factors, and expected successes and failures through internal factors.

It’s important to note that the person who makes the attribution and the person whose action or behaviour is explained by attributing a cause don’t have the same data. Secondly, what is important for the person who makes the attribution may not be important for the person whose action is observed. The person has data about their motivations that are not known by the observer.

Stereotypes That Can Occur In The Workplace

Have you ever confronted or witnessed stereotypes in the workplace? Or have you surprised yourself by holding stereotypical beliefs?

At some point, probably all of us have.

In my case, at the beginning of my career, I happened to interview people who at first glance seemed to be promising candidates, based on their attire and attitudes. However, in some cases, after a few questions and answers, I changed my first impression. The truth is that how a candidate or employee dresses doesn’t tell us anything about their competencies or motivation. But sometimes, a well-dressed person may be perceived as competent and motivated. This is not always the case.

Stereotypes are formed by generalizing specific characteristics of one or more members of a group to the entire group within that category. Stereotypes can be formed based on our own limited experiences or these can be learned. We can adopt them from other people, from media, from a specific group we are part of, or other sources.

For example, a person might learn from their parents or peers that individuals from a certain country are unreliable in business dealings. Even if they have never had direct personal experience with people from that country, they might adopt this stereotype based on others’ opinions.

Now let’s delve into some common stereotypes that can be encountered in the workplace.

Stereotypes Related To Personality Traits

Introverts And Extroverts

Introverts might be stereotyped as shy, reserved, and lacking in social skills, while extroverts might be seen as outgoing, confident, and more suited for leadership. 

For example, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is known for his introverted nature. Despite his quiet demeanor, he led Microsoft to become one of the world’s most successful technology companies. Warren Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is another example of a successful introverted leader. He is renowned for his exceptional investment strategies and his ability to analyse complex financial situations. 

The Expression Of Emotions

Those who express emotions openly might be seen as less professional. They might be judged unfairly, as week persons or too sensitive persons.

Those who suppress emotions might be perceived as more composed and objective. Bu also, they might not receive recognition for their empathy and emotional intelligence. They may be perceived as detached and not caring about the situation or about the people involved.

Navigating situations where expressing or suppressing emotions can impact perceptions of professionalism requires a balanced and mindful approach.

How Can We Do This?
  • In some situations, showing vulnerability and empathy can build trust and rapport, while in others, maintaining composure might be more effective. Consider who your audience is and how they might perceive emotional expressions. 

  • You can express emotions genuinely without allowing them to overpower your ability to make rational decisions and contribute effectively.

  • If you choose to suppress emotions, make an effort to demonstrate empathy in other ways. Active listening, supportive actions, and understanding the perspectives of others can convey your care and concern.

  • Recognize that different people have varying emotional styles. Embrace and respect the diversity of approaches in your workplace, understanding that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

Job Related Stereotypes

These stereotypes are based on the type of job or industry an individual works in. For instance, assuming that someone in a creative field is more innovative than someone in a technical field, or vice versa.

Professions like scientist,  engineer, programmer, might be perceived as requiring higher intelligence and technical skills. People in other roles might face biases in being considered for certain opportunities or initiatives.

Administrative roles might be underestimated in terms of their importance and impact on the organization. Administrative professionals might not receive the recognition they deserve for their organizational and multitasking skills. Some companies label the administrative roles as ‘support roles’, seeing them as less important because these don’t bring direct revenue to the company.

Some jobs or professions may be perceived as more suitable for women, such as secretary or nurse, while others may be perceived as more appropriate for men, for instance, mechanical or electrical engineer.

Education-Based Stereotypes

Assuming that individuals with higher levels of education are more intelligent or capable than those with lower levels of education.

I think many of us know that often schools fails to equip individuals with skills and competencies that they can use in real life situations. They provide knowledges but sometimes these are not useful or these fail to teach how to apply them. A person without college who was mentored by a successful entrepreneur may be more skilled and competent than a person who graduated a prestigious University. Examples as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg speak for themselves.

I’m not saying that high education is not valuable, just that is not an exclusive indicator of a person’s intelligence and capabilities.

Graduates of prestigious universities might be stereotyped as more intelligent, capable, and qualified. Individuals who attended less-known institutions might face biases in being considered for certain roles or opportunities.

Those who pursued non-traditional education paths, such as online courses or vocational training, might be stereotyped as less credible or less qualified. Individuals with alternative education paths might face biases in job applications and career advancement.

Stereotypes Related To Professional Status

Assuming that people in higher positions are always more competent, intelligent, or deserving of their roles than those in lower positions.

This stereotype often originates from cultural and societal norms that associate higher status positions with qualities like intelligence, competence, and hard work. People might assume that individuals who have climbed the corporate ladder or attained prestigious titles must possess exceptional abilities.

An example that illustrates this could be the following: a marketing department has a graphic designer who consistently produces visually stunning and effective materials. However, this designer is often overshadowed by the director of marketing, who is assumed to have a deeper understanding of design due to their position. The director receives praise for the work produced by the entire team, while the individual responsible for the outstanding designs remains unrecognized.

Seeing this situation from a different angle, companies can have different standards for job positions and the requirements can be different. Also, people have different levels of skills to negotiate their jobs and advance in their careers. Furthermore, opportunities for advancement can be different in different companies.

In another possible situation, some employees may be promoted to leadership roles because other members of the team are so proficient at their tasks that moving them to administrative roles would not be in the company’s interests. 

Stereotypes Related To Economic Status

Individuals of higher economic status might be stereotyped as more competent, and capable compared to those of lower economic status. People from lower economic backgrounds might face biases in opportunities and recognition, despite their skills and abilities.

For instance, a candidate who has a large revenue at his current job may be perceived as more competent and capable than another candidate who earns less. However, after the selection process, where these two candidates are evaluated and tested, it may turn out that the person with a lower income has higher skills than the other one.

Gender Stereotypes

These involve beliefs about the roles and abilities of men and women. For instance, assuming that women are better suited for nurturing roles and men are more suited for leadership positions.

Men are often stereotyped as assertive, confident, and natural leaders, while women might be perceived as less assertive and less suited for leadership roles. Women might face challenges in being recognized as effective leaders, and men who don’t conform to these stereotypes might face stigma.

Men are sometimes expected to suppress their emotions and avoid showing vulnerability, while women might be expected to be more emotional and empathetic. These stereotypes can create an environment where men might hesitate to seek support, and women might be dismissed as overly emotional.

It’s a common perception that men are more aligned with technical fields and disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. On the other hand, women are sometimes stereotyped as being less proficient or interested in these sectors.

Men might be seen as better negotiators and advocates for their own interests, while women might be stereotyped as less effective in negotiations. Women might face challenges in advocating for themselves, leading to wage disparities and unequal opportunities.

Women’s appearances are often more heavily scrutinized, with assumptions that their physical appearance is linked to their competence. Women might feel pressured to conform to certain beauty standards to be taken seriously in professional settings.

Women are often expected to prioritize family responsibilities, while men might face stigma or bias if they prioritize their family over work. Women might face challenges in achieving work-life balance, and men might feel pressured to prioritize work over family.

Racial And Ethnic Stereotypes

These stereotypes involve making assumptions about individuals based on their racial or ethnic background. Examples include assuming that certain ethnic groups are better at certain jobs or are less competent overall.

Individuals from groups targeted by stereotypes might experience reduced self-esteem and confidence due to feeling undervalued and misunderstood.

Age-Related Stereotypes

These involve making judgments based on an individual’s age.

Older employees might be stereotyped as technologically incompetent, while younger employees might be seen as lacking experience.

Older employees are often seen as having more experience and expertise due to their longer work history. While experience is valuable, assuming that age directly correlates with competence can disregard the skills and knowledge of younger employees.

Younger individuals might be seen as more suitable for promotions and leadership roles due to assumptions about their energy and potential for growth. Older employees might be overlooked for advancement opportunities based on the perception that they are nearing the end of their careers.

Older employees might be viewed as less adaptable to change and less willing to learn new skills. This stereotype can lead to older employees being excluded from training or development opportunities, limiting their potential growth.

Older individuals are sometimes seen as natural mentors due to their life experience and knowledge. While mentorship is valuable, older employees might also benefit from learning opportunities and reverse mentorship from younger colleagues.

Younger employees are sometimes seen as more creative and innovative, while older workers might be considered less open to new ideas. Impact: Overlooking the potential for innovation among older employees can hinder the organization’s growth.

Physical Appearance Stereotypes

These involve making judgments based on an individual’s physical attributes, such as weight, height, or attractiveness. For instance, assuming that a person’s appearance reflects their abilities.

Employees who opt for casual attire might be perceived as less dedicated or less focused on their work compared to those who dress more formally. Individuals who wear creative or unconventional clothing might be labelled as free-spirited or creative thinkers, while those who dress more conventionally might be perceived as conformists.

Employees in business casual attire are often seen as more approachable and friendly, while those in formal attire might be perceived as less open to interactions. This stereotype can lead to biases in interactions and collaboration based on assumptions about an individual’s demeanor.

An employee with a hairstyle that is unusual might face assumptions that they are not adhering to “professional norms”, even if their work is exemplary.


How To Motivate Your Employees So They Care For Your Business And Help You Grow It

How Stereotypes Can Be Prevented

Increasing Our Awareness

We can learn about the nature and impact of stereotypes. We can prevent them by raising our awareness about stereotypes and how these can lead to unfair judgments, discrimination, and exclusion. 

You can do this in the workplace by providing books, training sessions about cognitive biases, videos related to this topic, or simply discussing it openly. 

Through Empathy

Empathy requires caring for the other person. When we are in this space, it is less likely that we’ll say something that can hurt the other person or do something that is not fair to them. 

Empathy humanizes people by recognizing their individuality and complexity. It reminds us that everyone has unique experiences and stories.

Empathy encourages looking beyond labels and appearances to understand the person beneath. This can lead to a more accurate and nuanced understanding of their background and experiences.

Imagining how it feels to be in someone else’s situation can lead to a deeper understanding of their challenges, struggles, and triumphs.

Empathy can drive individuals to take action against injustice and inequality, including challenging stereotypes.

Empathy creates safe spaces for individuals to share their experiences without fear of judgment, enabling honest conversations.

Practicing empathy encourages personal growth by expanding one’s horizons and fostering a more open-minded outlook.

Practicing Active Listening

Through active listening, we can truly hear and understand the experiences and viewpoints of others. This helps counteract assumptions based on stereotypes. I’ve wrote more about active listening in one of my previous blog post. You can check it HERE.

Challenging Our Assumptions

Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions hastily. Take the time to carefully consider the situation.

Reflect on why you hold that assumption and where it might have come from. Is it from your own experience? Did you adopt it from another person or group? Is our experience broad enough to conclude that the assumption is true? Or, is the person from whom you took the idea or data a reliable source?

Intentionally seek out differing viewpoints and perspectives. Try to understand how others might see the same situation or issue.

Seek information that contradicts your assumptions, broadening your perspective.

Leadership That Encourages Open Communication

Being open to discussing work stereotypes with your team members or colleagues will help you identify and eliminate them. 

Encourage your team to make observations when they think that a decision or behaviour is rooted in stereotypes. And discourage behaviours that are based on these.

Key Points:

  1. Attribution process
  2. Different types of stereotypes that can occur in the workplace and their possible impact 
  3. How stereotype can be prevented

Let me know what are your thoughts about this blog post. If you have questions I’ll be happy to answer them at:

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How To Motivate Your Employees So They Care For Your Business And Help You Grow It