Countering negative stereotypes at work
Have you ever been unfairly accused by a colleague of workplace bullying? Or have you been labeled as a trouble-maker, due to simply raising concerns at work? Do people speak negatively about you?
It is very hurtful, of course, when people think the worst of you and misjudge your intentions. If negative stereotypes are allowed to continue, such beliefs can certainly affect other people’s dealings with you and perhaps result in formal grievances being launched.
Fortunately, there are ways to break such negative stereotypes.
- Reassure people of your intentions: When people have insufficient information, they are often tempted to fill in the blanks for themselves. Sadly, many people tend to assume the worst. Cognitive psychology says that this is due to most human beings having a negativity bias.
When faced with uncertainty or challenging behaviour from others, we often assume the worst so we can anticipate danger and take protective actions. While this negativity bias can certainly ensure our survival in high-risk situations, assuming the worst in others at work means that we are usually wrong.
If you sit down with a team member to address a concern you may have about their performance, this bias may cause them to misread your intentions. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity to learn or get on the same page for the future, they may assume you dislike them and would prefer not to be working with them.
So, it is important when there is a chance that colleagues may think the worst, that you let them know that you have good intentions. For example, letting people know that you genuinely want to achieve a good outcome that is fair for both of you.
If you are a team leader, you might be able to say that you have your team leader’s hat on, that it is part of your role to give feedback, and that you very much want to help them to succeed. Of course, it is important when communicating good intentions that you also communicate genuineness. The other person has to believe that you mean what you say.
- Contradict the negative stereotype they have: Here it is important to give people a different experience of you to one they are predicting. It is hard to maintain a negative view of you if your behaviour is completely different to what they expect.
If they are misreading performance management as bullying, is it possible to give them space for a while? When speaking with them, can you give more of the feedback that is positive than constructive? Or can you work with them more collaboratively, involving them in solutions that are respectful both of their needs and the workplace’s needs?
In such situations, it can also help to have a supportive third party present, ‘to keep you both on track’. Assuming this third party is supportive of your approach, this can help to counter any negative stereotype the team member concerned may have and help protect you from unfair accusations.
If others see you as a team member who is constantly negative and resisting change, can you pick your fights more carefully? Can you make it more obvious when you are cooperating with what needs to be done? Is it possible to make comments that are more positive and supportive?
Remember that negative stereotypes are developed through misperceptions, over time. It is also what you do over time that counters those stereotypes.
- Run appropriate training: There is no doubt that education and skill development influences change at the workplace level. For example, I am often called into workplaces to run customised training about building positive team relationships, handling difficult conversations well, and what workplace bullying is, as well as what it isn’t.
We all need to understand how we can easily misperceive other’s behaviour, how our behaviour can come across to others, and what can do to work through difficulties as they arise.
Such training, where the issues are handled appropriately, can be a way to address the needs of individuals and develop skills without someone feeling like the finger of blame is being pointed at them.
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Yes, it is very tempting to tell people to lighten up, to point out their own defects, and to defend our own behaviour. Unfortunately, such human responses tend to only confirm negative stereotypes, not dispel them.
Although we can’t control how people choose to see us, we can at least make sure that people understand our intentions and that our body language and behaviour matches accordingly.