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Stereotyping at work

In 1922, a journalist named Walter Lippmann introduced the word "stereotype" as a metaphor for a mental picture people form based on their cultural notions. The higher the level of multicultural awareness a manager has, the lower the risk of pigeonholing employees into perceived cultural traits.

When interacting with a different culture, it is a natural human tendency to see the cultural perception first and the actual individual afterward. Stereotyping at work is a double-edged sword. It can significantly limit a leader's ability to manage their people equitably and efficiently, particularly when these stereotypes dictate how people are treated, developed, and rewarded. It also can decrease productivity and affect morale when the perception of "us and them" takes over. For instance, a highly homogeneous leadership team will face many challenges trying to convince their diverse subordinates that equal promotion opportunities are the rule and not the exception.

But often, stereotyping can be adequately used, provided the leader has the right level of cultural awareness. Sometimes, these biased first perceptions can prove helpful in trying to read individual behaviors and reactions better, avoiding misunderstandings.

Take, for instance, these two situations:

From Yes to No or from No to Yes: When meeting people for the first time, few cultures are more distant than the American and Russian ones. Most Americans are extremely friendly initially, always eager to please and leave a great first impression. But this initial first encounter should not be misinterpreted as any future commitment to help or willingness to develop more personal or professional intimacy ("Yes to No"). Let's have lunch; I'm here to help. Call me when you want. At least at the very beginning, there are only interjections that lack meaning. On the contrary, most Russians are distant at first, almost unfriendly, and they need much more time to get to know the other person and develop a bond. But unlike in the American culture, once Russians open up, one can usually expect a growing and long-term relationship ("No to Yes")

Punctuality: The meaning of time assumes entirely different aspects from country to country, which can cause much friction in the workplace. For Americans, time is money, a scarce and precious commodity. In such a profit-oriented society (very few cultures use as a compliment "you look like a million dollars"), saving time is a general behavior (think about the invention of fast-food stores, multitasking, eating on the go, etc.) The goal is to make money and each hour counts. Therefore, saving money is always a good strategy. When scheduling a work meeting, the role of the timekeeper is critical, and the conference's outcome is less important than the adherence to the planned schedule ("my time is up"). Latins and Middle Easterns have a more challenging time adapting to this notion. For them, punctuality and programs are much less important than the actual significance of each meeting, many times ignoring deadlines or the passing of time if it means that the conversations will be left unfinished.

These, of course, are just stereotypes, and one will indeed find introverted Americans that place very little importance on the respect of schedules and deadlines if those somehow can interfere with the development of an actual relationship. However, awareness of these subtle differences can help us become less judgemental and avoid misunderstandings based on superficial perceptions.


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