“There is a theory that says the reason we have not been contacted by extra-terrestrials is that when a civilization reaches our stage of development it becomes unstable and destroys itself.” — Stephen Hawking

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 hear 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).