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The problem with stereotyping staff in an organisation

Stereotypes become most inaccurate when people have less interaction with a particular group. Photo/FILE
Stereotypes become most inaccurate when people have less interaction with a particular group. Photo/FILE 

Stereotyping often elicits deep emotions that upset many of us in East Africa. Unfortunately, stereotypes remain a prominent reality in cultures around the world and of course right here in Kenya.

How many remember feelings of frustration when denied a job or promotion while believing that stereotyping played a role in the denial of that opportunity?

Anyone remember feeling biased against by teachers, a neighbour or in the security queue at the airport by a security professional? Thankfully, not everyone in a culture stereotypes.

Do you stereotype your neighbours, colleagues and friends? If so, what stereotypes do you hold about people?

Stereotyping fellow citizens undoubtedly causes numerous issues in a nation. American stereotypes exist between north versus south and black versus white.

Europeans often stereotype based on fat versus thin and immigrant versus native. South Asia struggles with stereotypes between light and dark as well as between castes, while East Asia scuffles with rural versus urban and beautiful versus plain.

Here at home, the epicentre of stereotypes revolves around ethnicity or rural versus urban orientation.

All of us know the stereotypes about tribes: Kamba, Maasai, Luhya, Digo, Kalenjin...

Prior to the 2007 elections, many stereotypes often received humorous attention on television and radio. We all remember the funny Redykyulass antics. Following the 2007-2008 post-election violence, however, celebrating cultural differences became more frowned upon and such differences gave root to more bitter stereotypes.

In creating stereotypes, we develop categories and assign traits. Next we assign a person to that category based on our observations. Then, we make assumptions that since the other person belongs to that category, then they possess the traits of that category.

Since I am a professor, let me pick on my category as an example. First, people may believe that professors are absent minded. My students may assign the traits of that category to me by thinking that, therefore, Professor Scott is absent minded.

Unfortunately, assigning traits to all members of a particular group may lead to problems. Professional Kenyans often stereotype Tanzanians as professionally lazy despite evidence of thousands of hardworking industrious Tanzanians.

So, suppose a Tanzanian, Mr Mruma, comes to work at a large bank in Nairobi. The first day on the job, his supervisor may begin to form expectations about him based on the stereotypes. The supervisor’s behaviour throughout Mr Mruma’s employment changes based on the earlier expectations.

Eventually, the supervisor’s behaviour begins to affect Mr Mruma. Finally, Mr Mruma might begin to stop working hard because he may feel “since everyone expects me to act lazily and treats me as such even when I am not, then I may as well just be lazy.”

The stereotypes lead to negative performance of the employee that collectively brings down overall firm profits.

Psychologists refer to the above downward spiral as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Employees subconsciously act out on the expectations held on them. It may require coaching and incredible self-awareness for employees to rise above the expectations that those around them hold.

The stress associated with stereotyping leads to unhappy employees, lack of organisational trust and lower performance.

So as a manager, how do you stamp out stereotypes in your business?

Start by realising the accuracy around stereotypes. Stereotypes usually possess some accuracy, but also many distortions and errors. The traits do not describe everyone in a particular group.

People tend to screen out information that does not fit with their stereotype. In our above Tanzanian example, each time someone meets a hardworking professional from Tanzania, they might psychologically ignore the reality and keep believing in the stereotype.

Stereotypes become most inaccurate when people have less interaction with a particular group. American stereotypes about Arabs reach fever pitch due in part to the lack of personal interaction with Arabs. Likewise, Nairobi professionals may have little interaction with actual Tanzanian professionals since most interactions with Tanzanians may occur while on a personal family holiday south of the border.

As a manager, work hard to mix different types of people in your firm through team building, joint assignments and geographic reassignment.

To reduce stereotyping in your firm and fix the negative effects from the practice, start with awareness training.

First, your organisational leaders should learn that negative stereotype perceptions hurt the business. Then train your employees on cultural history that may lead to some stereotypes and then how to appreciate different cultures.

Second, mix your employees so different categories work together.

Training and mixing along does not solve the self-fulfilling prophecy problem. So, use Dr Susan Durbin’s three-pronged strategy that includes supporting a learning orientation in your firm. Encourage learning about, not just mixing with, other cultures or people types.

Next, engage in contingency leadership styles. Adapt your leadership style to the environment. Aware of stereotypes in Kisumu versus Nyeri, adjust your leadership styles accordingly in each location.

Finally, increase employee self-efficacy. Standford University psychologist Albert Bandura developed the idea of self-efficacy to address how an employee perceives his or her ability to perform a task within a specific context. While similar to self-esteem, self-efficacy differs in that it focuses on a specific to task performance.

Positively reinforce the employee’s ability to do the task. Publicly praise the employee for performing the task properly.

Fixing the stereotype problem takes time and effort. However, a low-stereotype environment improves performance and improves your employee’s sense of self-worth.

Prof Bellows serves as the director of the New Economy Venture Accelerator at USIU’s Chandaria School of Business and Colorado State University, www.usiu.ac.ke/gsse, and may be reached on: bscott@usiu.ac.ke or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor.

USIU and the Business Daily announce an upcoming business plan competition for socially conscious and sustainable business ideas for East Africans under the age of 27.

Winners to receive features in the Business Daily and USAid scholarships for graduate-level entrepreneur studies at USIU and Colorado State University. More to be released weekly.