How stereotyping costs you business, engagement, and happiness

When I was growing up parents didn’t drive their kids to playdates or adventure sports. Your best friend was whoever lived closest to you. You knew where all your friends were by whose house had the most bikes in the front yard. You only went home to do homework – which involved a book, notebook, encyclopedia and a pencil – to watch the puppet part of Mr. Rogers, to eat meals, or at the end of the day when the streetlights went on.

Back then your fun was climbing trees, holding crayfish, catching fireflies, watching trains flatten pennies on railroad tracks, and playing kickball on the four corners after dinner. Every neighborhood had a bully, a heartthrob, a mean girl, a nerd, a skinny kid who didn’t fit in and a popular kid. I was the skinny kid who didn’t fit in. You learned quickly who you could trust and who you couldn’t.

Fast forward to today where technology has impacted the way children grow up and the way companies do business. Children need not go to their friend’s house to play a game or telephone them to communicate. Distance learning transformed education. Telecommuting transformed the way we work. Audioconferencing transformed the way we meet. And technology eliminated some industries altogether. Exit stage left World Book Encyclopedia.

Yet in today’s world, as people revisit a simpler time with vinyl records on the rise and electronic book readers on the decline, there are some things that haven’t changed. Most companies have a bully, a heartthrob, a mean girl, a nerd, a skinny kid who doesn’t fit in and a popular kid.

The problem

We stereotype people because our minds need to have order. Humans are programmed to stay safe with a fight-or-flight mentality. This self-preservation mechanism served humanity well when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is easier to metaphorically put people in a box with a label and store them safely away than to deal with fear that makes us uncomfortable. After all, there are more pressing issues that interest us. Enter stage right iPhone8.

The cost

When we stereotype we discriminate. We become the judge and jury without a trial. The sentence most often is permanent and without bail. When a co-worker is labeled ‘difficult’ or ‘not management material’ we stop stewarding them to higher performance. When they realize their potential is limited they often underperform, drive others out of the organization, and become an attrition statistic.

The solution

The solution comes from Mr. Rogers’ theme song. When you are a ‘good neighbor’ the doors of engagement open. Can you think, for a moment, about the last time someone called you a name? It hurt. You probably felt unfairly judged and powerless to undo it.

Before you stereotype someone, pause. Put yourself in their shoes. Here you are their peer. Sometimes we don’t want to imagine their perspective because it makes us feel defenseless. Remember, we might be eaten by the mammoth. But, in reality, being comfortable with our own vulnerability is a springboard to compassion for others and peace for ourselves. We separate the people from the problem, thus focusing on problem solving, not our position. Early in my career I was labeled ‘The Divorcee with Four Kids’ until I shattered the goals every place I worked. Then I was labeled ‘The Racehorse – Get Out of Her Way.’ I’ll take it.

What we judge in others is often what we judge in ourselves. When you can set aside resenting a colleague because she’s successful, you can learn from her. When you can set aside being annoyed by a leader’s eruptions, you can build trust enough to ask what worries him.

If you are the one being stereotyped it is virtually impossible to drop the label without calling attention to your intention to do so. Ask for an appointment individually with key people who have labeled you. Tell them you recognize that a negative perception exists. Tell them they would be doing you a huge favor if they would tell you what that perception is. Do not defend yourself. Tell them you understand and ask what they advise you to do to remedy this. Then thank them and say you will update them on your progress. They will be intrigued to be part of your transformation.

In summary, make the most of this beautiful day by imagining your colleagues wear a big sign around their necks that reads, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE is an executive coach and corporate CEO who helps busy leaders get off the treadmill to nowhere to be more effective, earn more, be more calm and enjoy connected relationships with the people who matter while it still matters. Watch her FREE Master Class training on Three Things to Transform Your Life and Career Right Now at