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Christmas presents fit in boxes, people don't

Have you ever noticed the amount of “boxing in” that goes on in conversations?


It happens quickly, without much awareness, and much challenging. I am guilty of it as well, putting others into “boxes” as well as putting myself in “boxes”. Here are some examples:


  • He’s an accountant, so he‘s not great with people management.
  • She’s introverted, so she likes to do one thing at a time.
  • He is good at networking because he’s extroverted.
  • I don’t like to stand out, it’s an Asian thing.
  • She’s really senior so she wouldn’t want to speak to someone so junior.
  • He’s older so he wouldn’t know much about new technology.
  • She has kids so she won’t want a job that requires travel.


It may be true but it may not be. It reinforces unconscious biases and increases the risk of acting on false assumptions. We don’t give people opportunities because we assume they’re not good at it or don’t want to. Then our confirmation bias kicks in so we only see what fits in the original “box”.


It can also be self-limiting as we get stuck in the box that we create for ourselves. We make excuses for not developing ourselves beyond the boxes or limit our potential based on past conditioning. “That’s just not me,” we say.


Well-meaning advisory articles can reinforce the stereotypes. For example:


  • Do this and that when managing extroverts vs introverts.
  • Men need to show more empathy.
  • Women need to show more confidence to be noticed.
  • Indian culture is like this, China is like that so we should treat them like this and that.
  • Leaders should have this kind of personality.


While sometimes the advice is useful, other times it's not. For example, I am an easily distracted introvert, unlike some advice that says introverts like to work on one task at a time. I am reading 10 books at any given time and I work on multiple project in one day. I get bored doing only one thing.


Personality profiling tools are great for helping us understand each other’s differences, but can cause us to put people or ourselves in “boxes”. Human being are much more complex and nuanced. There are always exceptions to the stereotypical rules as we don’t fit neatly into boxes.


While “boxes” are helpful to some degree as it makes a complex world simple, they don’t help when we want to:


  • Realise our fullest potential
  • Lead high performing teams
  • Unlock dormant potential in organisations
  • Fuel growth through innovation
  • Make progress on diversity and inclusion


A more sophisticated and effective approach would be to recognise the “boxes” as simplified guides, ask the person/persons with open curiosity and adapt as needed. If you could just ask me, “How do you work best?” I can tell you that I need some personal space and thinking time, I’m happy to work on multiple projects, happy to talk in front of a large group but need some time out afterwards, etc.


Do you ever feel you’ve been boxed in? Have you noticed how you put yourself in a box? Have you put others in boxes?


Relevant articles:

Assumptions: The Silent Assassin

Are you a leader that gets the best from a mix of different people?

Unconscious bias is a business issue, not just a diversity issue

How much and how often do you hold yourself back?

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