Whether or not we like to admit it, we all view the world through the lens of our personal biases and stereotypes. It's an unavoidable fact of human nature. If you accept it and go with it, you'll only gain- both in business and in life.
Lately, I have come across several provocative articles on the topic of perceptions and stereotypes. Here are a few of the notable ones:
- Business World Perceptions, Mis-Perceptions and Judging Books by Their Covers: The Curious Case of Dolph Lundgren!
- Customer Perceptions, Do You Love Them or Hate Them?
- Dealing With Racism: Understanding Why And A Solution
In the business world, everything revolves around the perceptions, values, and biases of your customers, employees, and business partners. If you fail to accurately identify where any of these groups are holding, then you will have little chance of running a successful business.
Today, being in touch with these attitudes is all the more important as businesses big and small are pushing the geographical boundaries aside to operate in the global marketplace with multicultural, multinational teams, and as the world in general becomes increasingly interconnected. These days, exposure to a broad spectrum of thinking, culture, and appearance is practically unavoidable.
But in the movement for Political Correctness, Cultural Sensitivity, and Equality for All, some vital points seem to have fallen by the wayside and many times this Enlightened Sensitivity only results in a collective dumbness...
The truth is that our perceptions, biases and stereotypes have a purpose. In order to make sense of the world we live in- one with an ever-increasing flood of sites, sounds, and information all competing for our attention- an individual has to create a personal set of values, biases, and stereotypes. Sometimes our assumptions are off and perceptions are skewed. It's part of the "predicament" of being human.
But problems arise when people try to indiscriminately break down their perceptions and biases with little reason behind it. If you're on the street at night with no one around and a group of men who look like gang members start heading your way, it's not the time to be PC, it's time to run the heck out of there- even if you end up being wrong about who they really are. And if your gut is telling you that your used car salesman is taking your for a ride, then it's better to proceed with caution then leave yourself vulnerable to a scam.
True greatness and sensitivity is when you can hold your perceptions yet not make a judgment on the person's innate value; greatness is seeking to understand where others are different and why; and greatness is being able to leave enough space for your perceptions to change where and when it is justifiable to do so.
I'm saying it as if it's so easy to do; it's not. It's probably one of the hardest things for a person to come to in life.
Another point... when it comes to other people there is only so much you can do to change their perceptions- occasionally you may succeed if the other party is receptive, but usually you won't. Don't forget, they are also trying to make sense of this world. If you want to get through to another group, then you have to learn to speak their language (and I don't mean that literally in all cases). This is extremely important to remember in sales, marketing, project management (with multicultural teams), and business negotiations.
And the most fundamental point to remember when it comes to relationships in life and in business: once a person comes to trust you, then and only then do you have a chance to tweak their thinking a bit. But in order to build that trust, it pre-supposes that you have built a relationship based on understanding and intrinsic value- which brings me full circle to my original point.
Lastly, I want to end this post with the following food for thought, the truth of which can only really be known by the person himself: the more angry you get at the biases and perceptions of another, the more it is indicative of the strength of your own inner convictions and perceptions, biases and stereotypes. The most bigoted, racist people will typically be unable to tolerate anyone who's thinking is not like their own.
There is a famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi: "You be the change you wish to see in the world." If you are so bothered by the ignorance, stereotypes, racism that exists in the world, then do some introspection; it could very well be that you are guilty of holding all of these things yourself.