THE BLOG
10/25/2016 02:20 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2017

Devaluing Colleagues: We Do It Everyday.

"He's overweight. If he doesn't care about himself, he doesn't care about his work." "She doesn't sound like she is from around here, how will she fit in?" "He's leaving early to pick up his kid again? He's not as committed to his career as I am." "I can't believe she isn't on Twitter. How can she keep up with our technology at the office if she can't even keep up with something every kid knows how to do?"

Hopefully, we never hear these things but, chances are someone may be thinking them. Nagging, judgmental voices, every day people judge and devalue their office colleagues, whether we say it out loud or simply think it.

But why do we think such things about our colleagues?

Psychologist Joseph LeDoux notes that we make daily evaluations about others' appropriate or inappropriate characteristics based on physical, emotional or background attributes. It's not that we mean to be mean. Yet, we make assumptions about people, and those assumptions are not always appropriate.

It is more than words and judgmental statements about others. Our devaluation of others extends to our emotional reactions to and behavioral treatment of them as well, and that includes stereotyping, dislike, exclusion or discriminatory treatment and can make the targeted person feel persecuted, ashamed, angry and despondent. Does this sound like a person who is going to produce great work?

Numerous studies have shown that devaluation can lead to turnover intentions, job dissatisfaction, poor performance appraisals; negative advancement opportunities, emotional conflict, social isolation, feelings of disrespect, and low self-esteem. We live and work in a time that supposedly values diversity and inclusion. However, there is ample evidence that workers often feel excluded and devalued by others and that leads to many negative outcomes.

If Only You Were More...

We most commonly judge others based on physical attributes. We not only perceive attractive and unattractive coworkers differently, or those of a different race or gender, we act on those perceptions in ways that are hurtful to people personally and professionally. Social psychologists and management academics have conducted research that show physical characteristics such as race gender age, physical unattractiveness, disability, chronic illness, speech impediments and weight cause devaluation in the workplace.

Julie Chen, co-host of The Talk, revealed that she underwent eyelid surgery early in her career after she was told that she would never sit on the anchor desk because she looked too Chinese. Chen's career was important to her, so she made the decision to change her looks. Her career took off, but she confessed, "I wondered, did I give in?"

Unattractiveness often plays a role in the devaluation of others. A study published in Human Performance showed that unattractive people are more likely to be bullied at work. Researchers Timothy Judge and Brent Scott found that physical attractiveness plays at least as big a role in how a person is treated at work as personality. Even if an unattractive person is gregarious and open to new ideas, he or she is likely to be the subject of rude, uncivil and even cruel treatment by coworkers.

While most research has focused on the devaluation of individuals with easily identifiable physical characteristics, devaluation can be associated with any form of individual difference or diversity. Non-visible attributes also provoke devaluation in the workplace, too, including religion, education, sexual orientation, mental illness, substance abuse, long periods of unemployment, values and beliefs, and political affiliation. The less likely the characteristic is to be noticed, the less likely the person is to be devalued. No wonder people often hide such attributes to avoid discrimination or other negative responses. A Muslim female may not wear a hijab. A manager with diabetes may hide her daily insulin injections from her employees. A gay coworker might not display photos of his partner on his desk. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, while never denying he was gay, just recently felt comfortable publicly coming out. Cook hopes his announcement will help reduce discrimination against gays.

Sometimes, the workplace itself can foster devaluation, such as diminishing workers who seek flexible work arrangements. It may be an acceptable practice, even a popular and lauded one, yet employees who take advantage of flex time often feel penalized, such as being overlooked for promotions or not invited to important meetings. And it isn't confined to child-bearing women and parents, but also includes grown children caring for elderly parents, or employees requiring regular medical or dental attention over a long period of time. Which means it affects a large percentage of the workplace. Just look at articles such as The Stigma of a BlackBerry User, which highlights the "mockery and derision" aimed at people who use a BlackBerry in an era of iPhones and Androids.

Let's Just Stop This, Shall We: Simple Steps We Can Take Right Now.

We have the power to prevent or end devaluation in ourselves and others. There are several common forces at play when we judge others and there are steps we can take daily to mitigate them.

1. Establish clear expectations of sensitivity and tolerance. Not only can we recognize the voices in our heads and thus work to deactivate those voices, we can act to prevent people from being devalued by developing practices that promote acceptance of differences in others and showing strong disapproval when others are devalued. Strong leaders set clear expectations for themselves and others to foster a culture of sensitivity and tolerance and one that minimizes devaluation. Promoting a culture that maintains professionalism, respect and high levels of emotional intelligence at all times can help employees work together without the negative effects of devaluation.

2. Raise awareness to your biases. We've long known that similarity makes people like and identify with each other. So, it is important to be aware of our bias or unconscious mindset against people who are different from us or who have a characteristic with which we don't overtly identify.  As an example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity commission found unconscious biases and perceptions about African Americans still play a significant role in employment decisions in the federal sector. Professor Judge notes: "If we recognize our biases and are more open and honest about their pervasiveness, we'll be in much better shape to combat the influence." When you hear that voice in your head judging others, notice it. Be aware of what you are thinking. Most people don't even realize they are thinking negatively about someone, which means they can't act to combat any resulting actions.

3. Look for the positive.  Research on the neuroscience of happiness indicates that we more often think negative thoughts than positive ones. While your mind might jump to the negative about someone, you can redirect your thoughts in a more positive direction. It can be as easy as looking for something nice to say, and saying it. And, of course, heed common advice: If you can't find something nice to say, don't say anything at all. 

4. Try to minimize stereotyping. We all use stereotypes to pigeonhole or typecast people, which forms a basis for our judgements, our words and subsequent behaviors. No one wants to be stereotyped. Stereotypes create negativity and block possibilities. So the next time you think about saying something funny about a blonde coworker, or a "stuffy" man in a suit, or an aging Baby Boomer, stop and recognize stereotypes and work to avoid it. Approach the person as just another person, someone whose interests may match your own, or who may need your advice, or who might turn out to be an interesting colleague or friend. Research suggestions that through practice, we can weaken our own mental links to negative stereotypes.

Start today. The next time you begin to judge someone, ask what author Steve Maraboli asks: "How would your life be different if...you stopped making negative judgmental assumptions about people you encounter? Let today be the day. Look for the good in everyone you meet and respect their journey."