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Joel Bion Headshot

Do you propagate 'well-meaning' stereotypes?

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Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO and author of the book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," recently recalled sharing a stage with Cisco CEO John Chambers where he mentioned to the audience: "I realized that we -- my company -- we have called all of our senior women too aggressive, and I'm standing on this stage, and I'm sorry. And I want you to know we're never going to do it again." I was lucky enough to be in the audience.

John made an important observation that needs to be understood and expanded upon because it goes well beyond gender.

To properly understand the issue, you need to accept the fact that almost all of us make one or both of these two mistakes multiple times a day:

1) We presume the attributes of a single individual match the general assumptions we make (often incorrectly) on the "type" of person we assume them to be. This is not just gender-based; it can be race-based, age-based, job-role based, culture-based, etc.

2) We judge a person's actions or words against differing standards, based on what "type" of person we assume them to be. This makes it easier or harder for them to succeed based not on their performance, but on our presumptions.

As an 'American white guy', one might assume I have been spared from facing the consequences of these assumptions and to a significant degree, I have. I have not suffered (in terms of career) issues based on race, gender or culture, no matter where I have been employed. But I have heard other prejudicial comments from customers, co-workers and friends: "You are unusually articulate for an engineer." "You seem to be able to empathize with others quite easily; that's rare for a man." "You understand the technology more than I would expect for a senior manager." "Oh, we don't want an engineer to talk to this account; we need someone who understands business relationships." "You seem awfully young to be able to speak on this issue." "We need someone younger to help us understand how social media websites are used."

These statements I have heard said about me are frustrating, diminishing, and limiting. They are for all who hear them. And we ALL hear them. When our own performance is presumed by another's belief on how my race, gender, job role, or culture behaves at large, it's unfair. It's unfair in both ways - sometimes I can be favored because of the groups I am identified with, but that is still unfair.

I'm hardly the first one pointing this out! But what I don't read or hear about very often (if ever) is accepting and understanding that it is very easy for us to make these mistakes, and so we need to continually and consciously work against making them.

Why is it so easy to make these mistakes? I don't believe humans are inherently evil. I do believe that we humans are always trying to make "predictive generalizations" to help us simplify and understand the scary and complex world around us. A yellow stoplight is followed by a red one. A ball bouncing into a street is often followed by a small child. If we didn't form these predictions, and if we weren't good at it, we'd never function in day-to-day life, let alone in a larger society.

It is so often so useful for us to make these predictive generalizations that we find it nearly impossible to stop making them, even when we are both factually and/or ethically wrong in doing so.

Those of us who make these mistakes are hurting ourselves: we don't see who the best person is for a task, we assume someone will do a good job in the absence of evidence, we don't judge based on performance. So, purely pragmatically, it's foolish to make this mistake. So how do we avoid doing this?

The first, and best, thing to do is to assume nothing about a person, beyond what trustworthy evidence of performance tells you. This applies to whoever you interact with, under any situation. In the social world, don't assume a young boy wants to talk about sports, and a young girl wants to talk about princess movies. Instead, ask them about their favorite after-school activity. In the workplace, don't assume the quiet engineer in the corner never wants to give a public speech. Let the entire team know you are looking for someone to speak at an event, and solicit volunteers.

Second, also avoid the "well-meaning mistakes"; for example, don't assume women need an inviting environment to speak up with ideas because some women don't need this, and some men do! Instead, discover what each person in your group needs, and if it makes business sense to do so, work to meet those needs. Again: no matter how well meaning, do not generalize! Each new person you meet is a new individual, with unique capabilities and needs. This is why I tend to ignore all attempts to categorize people into "personality types." Maybe those categorizations help in some way, but I always fear that I would start paying more attention to the tag associated with someone than I would to the person's own actions. It's best for me to simply learn about the strengths and weaknesses each person, and work with that.

Third, and just as important as the first two, realize that you are human, and that you will want to make generalizations. The urge to make such shortcuts is always there, accept that and don't feel badly about this - you're human. But what you can control is how you deal with this urge.

In this tough business climate, full of competition, it's foolish to not find the best people, or get the best out of each of them. There's no other choice: learn the skill-sets of each person; do not generalize. Your business depends on it.