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Stifled by Stereotypes

Stereotypes are like super-sized assumptions. They are assumptions held by society or a large group of people about certain types of people. Assumptions: The Silent Assassin highlighted the dangers of acting on assumptions without checking. Stereotypes are even more dangerous and costly because they are reinforced by society or a large group of people, not just held by ourselves.


I can think of many friends and colleagues who don't fit stereotypes.


Some women are:

  • Decisive
  • Direct
  • Assertive, even aggressive
  • Over-confident or arrogant
  • Sporty


Some men are:

  • Consultative
  • Sensitive and caring
  • Not into sports
  • Anxious, not overly confident
  • Indirect and conflict avoidant


Books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, various articles on feminism, media depiction of how men and women should or tend to be - all reinforce stereotypes. We strengthen these views in our everyday conversations. And they are not always true!


Some extroverts:

  • Are shy
  • Don't like large events with lots of strangers
  • Like to have time on their own
  • Socially inept or awkward


Some introverts:

  • Are gregarious
  • Enjoy talking in front of groups
  • Are not detail focused
  • Are good at networking


Susan Caine's work and talk on introverts was great in putting introverts on the map to be noticed and valued. There is a risk of putting all introverts in one bucket (ie. Stereotype), however. As an introvert I find I don’t fit some of the descriptions.


And the stereotype list goes on beyond gender and personality types.


We may have tendencies that fit the stereotypes but it is dangerous to assume that anyone fits stereotypes perfectly.


How often have you seen:


People overlooked for a task or even excluded because of assumptions about their strengths, personality or capabilities?

"She won't want or handle a role where there is a lot of conflict"

"He's too inexperienced..."

"We want someone younger than him..."


People being surprised at hidden or unexpected strengths, talents or learned skills others have?

"I didn't know you were good with numbers" to a HR professional

"I had no idea she's such a tough, trained negotiator" to a ‘feminine’ caring woman

“I didn’t realise how engaging he is as a presenter” to an introverted, seemingly quiet man


Beyond the individual frustrations and social cost, stereotypes stifle businesses because:

  • We hold people, teams and organisations back from reaching their full potential (eg. “She wouldn’t be suited to this role, she’s too quiet”).
  • We discourage people from developing new skills or attempting new opportunities (eg. “Old dogs don’t learn new tricks”).
  • We don’t hear people’s ideas properly (eg. Thinking “She wouldn’t know much about Technology” and we tune out). Creative, valuable ideas are missed as a result.
  • Stereotypes can keep us stuck in the status quo or prevent us from solving problems (eg. A technical team may think “Marketing won’t understand what we’re talking about”).


So the lessons here are that:

  • We really don't know people, even if we think we do.
  • People do adapt, grow and learn new skills and ways of being.
  • People are so much more than stereotypes.


In July 2016 I am chairing the Inaugural Asian Australian Leadership Summit in Sydney, Australia. I’m sure stereotypes will be one of many of the challenges to discuss. Please register at a discount HERE or share with your colleagues.


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Stop killing potential with “You don't look/sound like a ...”

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