And, yet again, it’s the culture

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What’s your plan for dealing with the almost-certain presence of bigotry in your workforce?

As pointed out last week, if you lead and manage a group big enough to be a statistically significant sample, bigotry is, almost certainly, present, and dealing with it has, with George Floyd’s murder, become a part of your job description.

Not the most fun part, to be sure, but it’s now among the most important.

Some context:

Once upon a time I thought jokes about the Irish and their propensity to drink in quantity, told in Lucky Charms Irish, were funny. That was right up until an Irishman overheard me and explained, in no uncertain terms, that he didn’t find my jokes at all funny.

In high school I thought Italian jokes were funny. That was right up until a young lady of Italian origin, who I found quite attractive, made it clear telling Italian jokes made me quite unattractive.

I also thought Polish jokes were funny. I told one to my friend, whose last name happened to be Kowalski. He explained that if I told another one he’d become my ex-friend.

Ethnicity and race were standard features in the humor of my youth. But just because my intention was to be funny, not mean, didn’t matter then and matters less now.

Which is why, as a leader and manager, your spider sense should tingle when you someone preface a remark with the telltale phrase, “This probably isn’t politically correct, but …”

No, it probably isn’t. What it probably will be is offensive.

It is, perhaps, a shame that we can’t solve prejudice by everyone who’s on the receiving end of such things growing thicker skins. But while I’m certainly in favor of enough epidermal thickening that we don’t encourage a culture of victimhood, making this the centerpiece ignores the reason racial and ethnic jokes are a bad idea.

It isn’t that these jokes offend people and hurt their feelings. They do, but there does come a point when having to tiptoe around a growing thicket of sensitivities does nobody any good.

No, the problem with racial and ethnic jokes is that they establish and reinforce stereotypes. And presenting the stereotype in the form of a joke makes it impossible to counter: Were you to hear a drunken Irishman joke, would you really feel comfortable saying, to the assembled, possibly chuckling audience, “Hey, wait a minute. Don’t you know the Irish rank 21 in per capita alcohol consumption? Why aren’t we picking on the Moldavians?”

Stereotypes are pernicious, because they turn people into cartoons. And that isn’t fair to the cartoons: The stick figures in Randall Munroe’s xkcd are more differentiated than “Jews are good negotiators.”

Stereotypes are why so many IT shops resisted Agile for so long, and why so many that reluctantly adopted it are busily turning Agile in to “Scrummerfall.” Namely, it’s the stereotype that says programmers aren’t capable of having conversations with non-technical managers and users, coupled with the stereotype that regular folk just aren’t smart enough to have conversations with technical professionals.

The cure that’s worse than the disease for this stereotype is to insert a business analyst to translate non-technical English to programmer-ese and back, thereby enshrining the children’s game of Telephone as methodology.

What stereotypes do is establish expectations as to how people will think and act. That’s a problem when three employees are expected to collaborate and one is an IT geek, the second an HR bureaucrat, and the third a bean counter from Accounting.

That isn’t, you might think, a big deal and in fact forcing them to collaborate can help them break through their stereotype-laden thinking.

And it can, but having to break through it is certainly more wasteful than not having it in the first place.

And anyway, it doesn’t stop there. What might be even worse is that sometimes, some people deliberately sign up for a stereotype, as happens in high school and the notorious mean girl cliques. Jillian wants to be part of the popular crowd, and so, even though she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, she ends up growing one.

In this respect, culture can make stereotypes real.

Which gets us to the linchpin of combatting prejudice in your organization: As with most forms of change, it starts and ends with the culture. That’s as true for culture that makes stereotyping others okay as it is for culture that establishes and legitimizes expectations we have of ourselves.

# # #One of the hazards of writing about IT management for as many years as I have (24 and counting) is that I find I’ve already written about the topic at hand. In this case I suggest you take a few minutes more to revisit these archival missives: “Leading in general,” (9/4/2006) and “Uncomfortable conversations,” (9/13/2010).

Comments (9)

  • Sounds wonderful. But. My spidey sense went off in the high school example and it tells me this isn’t an answer. People tend to self-organize with others they find similar. So in high school you’ll find jocks, nerds, organizers, misfits, etc. And they’ll self-associate. And then they’ll have stereotypes. Is this wrong?
    One useful bit of advice from my father was: “whatever you want to be, associate with people who are.” So I have sought out people who had skills I needed to acquire and mindsets I needed to adopt. This has led to what I consider positive developments. And it is based on stereotyping those people.
    And that’s my point: there are negative stereotypes and positive stereotypes. How to adopt the latter without allowing the former is something I’m not sure is possible. We certainly need to minimize behaviors of negative stereotyping. I think that’s all we can strive for.

    • I think you father’s (excellent) advice reinforces the point I was making. The missing piece, I think, is that the group you want to be part of might have one characteristic that’s admirable, or at least desirable (popularity), but right along with it might be a bunch of characteristics that aren’t (nastiness, self-importance).

      Join the group and you’re at risk of absorbing both.

  • I don’t have an issue with stereotypes dying. They should all die since we are one species until some diverge to become the successor of Homo sapiens. I think what bothers me is some of the younger crowd are telling people how to think and speak and if you don’t follow their instructions, you are a racist. I hope I am misunderstanding here, but I don’t think I am. Telling people how to think and speak does not work. Yes, you can coerce them, and they will comply, but they will find a way to subvert or work around the issue. And, it will not end well. That was a nice essay. Good luck and best wishes. We have some police forces to fix, and maybe society in general.

    • Kind of my point, thanks. Telling people how to think rarely works, even for clergy who are supposed to instruct their flocks how to think.

      Telling people how to behave … and more important, how not to behave? That you can do. Demonstrating your own adherence? That you must do.

  • Uh, isn’t “an IT geek, the second an HR bureaucrat, and the third a bean counter from Accounting” an example of three stereotypes? Or was that your (slightly subtle) point?

  • Well said as usual. As various groups have assimilated into American society, and brought with them their own customs and traditions which others adopted, most have developed an ability to laugh at themselves. As an Irish-Italian, I certainly have. Every ethnic/racial group has their unique characteristics. I suppose we could ignore them, but it’s much more fun to just enjoy them, perhaps with a bit of friendly rivalry, like we do with sports. I’m reminded that several of the best Jewish jokes were told to me by my Jewish friends.

    Not only that, many jokes have the same structure, and only the players change. The plane going down with someone jumping out with the boy scout’s backpack instead of a parachute, etc.

  • If you are lucky enough to have a black (descendant from slaves) programmer on staff, maintaining safe workplace is more than outlawing stereotype jokes.
    The most dangerous people are those that feel entitlement to do whatever they want to someone of the target group for whatever reason they can fabricate.
    Whether they are obvious murderers like the cops that killed George Floyd, or white woman who called 911 on the black birdwatcher in Central Park, you have to enforce a One-strike policy.
    Other things just don’t work. And, if you feel internal resistance to this, maybe it’s time to have that uncomfortable conversation with guy in the mirror.

    • Thanks for adding a first-person-reality-based perspective on this. To be clear, I talk about ethnic jokes because they’re a more likely way to identify prejudiced employees, not because I think they’re the most important problem to solve.

      And speaking of stereotypes and the Central Park dog walker, I can just imagine the stereotypes she brought to the encounter. I doubt “bird watcher” fit any aspect of the stereotypes she applied to the black man she abused.

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