Stereotypes can influence first impressions and can negatively impact the possibility of a healthy relationship. Categorisation (stereotype) deals with putting people into boxes – perhaps mildly, based on their interests, their respective professions, their hobbies, etc., but more strongly, by physical attributes and conversation. We make associations with our own past experiences, knowledge and understanding. Playwrights know this – when writing a script for a play, they use the behaviour of the characters to send a message through our observations. Since developing these impressions through the script can be lengthy, they save time by taking advantage of our stereotypes. For example, instead of having a used-car salesman display several dishonest deeds to establish his role, he may simply have slicked-back hair and wear a ‘loud’ necktie and a plaid sports jacket. Such characterisation makes the point in far less time – playwrights leverage the job a person has, something about his or her background or some physical attribute to save dialogue time in a play since they know we all have biases and stereotypes developed over time.
Stereotypes can be unfair, misleading and can mar judgement and even the credibility of the leader. Preconceived opinions about people, based more on assumptions rather than facts, negatively impact communication quality and stand in the way of effective listening. Frequently, the bias is easily perceived by the other party and trust is eroded.
Authentic (and effective) leadership, on the other hand, treats all people fairly – with an open mind and without prejudice. Leadership credibility is derived from consistency in behaviour and alignment to values – not situational ethics, the same of which creates uncertainty amongst followers. To subdue stereotypes, enhance trust and clear the way for accurate and productive communication, the leader should:
- Identify the stereotypes that have previously marred your judgement – gender, ethnicity, educational level, type of work, professional or not, background, likes, dislikes, etc. – look for exceptions to your stereotypes to challenge your own thinking
- Remove unhelpful and harmful words and phrases from your vocabulary – like the often-used generalisations ‘every’, ‘all’, ‘that’s just like the …’
- Challenge the stereotypes that others use frequently – for example: “all managers are in it for themselves”. Reply by suggesting the following: “In some instances, you are probably right. My manager, however, seeks opportunities to grow, develop and stretch us”.
- Challenge the categories that people assign to others or yourself – for ‘others’, you can ask: “Have you verified that with them?” For ‘self’, you can comment: “I think you are mistaken in that opinion about me …”
- Enhance your own listening skills – avoid the temptation of making assumptions and spend time attempting to understand employees at a deep level.
Stereotyping stands in the way of leadership effectiveness. Fairness, consistency and a lack of prejudice should mark the character of the leader. These character traits open the path to communication trustworthiness, better judgement and enhanced relationships.