Hippy, corrupt, predator, bureaucratic: Why stereotypes are a barrier to collaboration

I want to talk about stereotypes”, said a mature white male.

After decades of working with political correctness, the topic had a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.

The context was a conversation about collaboration between business, government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and donors. In terms of age, gender and nationality, we were a mixed group, predominantly European.

“Let’s see how many stereotypes we can come up with”, said a younger white male. “Where shall we begin?” “NGOs”, we said.

Finding negatives and seeking positives

At first we were tentative, and gently humorous. But after we had debunked NGOs, we nailed decision-makers, donors and business in quick succession. When we saw that the list we had created was almost entirely negative, we went back, and searched for some positive stereotypes.

A Bonfire of Stereotypes

And, oh, it was such fun, and so easy to do. We built a bonfire of stereotypes – not that any of us ever thinks in that way.

Stereotypes are a barrier to collaboration

What were our reflections?
• We wondered why clichés are mainly negative
• We agreed that clichés are a barrier and that they erode trust
• We all, though, have also had experiences that confirmed some of the clichés
• We sighed, and shook our heads
• We agreed that without trust there can be no good collaboration.

Stereotypes prevent us from being curious

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about decision-making, and why we humans aren’t very good at it. Perhaps we unconsciously cling to stereotypes because they make the world simpler. Once we have labeled an individual or an organisation, we don’t need to concern ourselves with what they really think or value. A corporation that wants to save the planet? A pro-business NGO? No, no, that is too complicated. Far better to assume that all NGOs are terrorists, and all politicians power-obsessed. You know where you are. There’s safety in stereotypes.

And just in case you are curious to know what kind of stereotypes we snatched from the air, here is a sample:

NGOs

Hippy, tree hugger, terrorist, back to living in caves, anti-development, idealistic, and also passionate, working from the heart and collaborative

Decision Makers / Government

Corrupt, ignorant, arrogant, slow, ineffective, time-servers, boring, disconnected, attention seeking, election focused, short term, power obsessed, and also (+) realistic, hard-working and value driven

Business

Predator, cheats, law-bypassers, conservative, small is good, big is bad, trouble-makers, short-term, profit-focused and also (+) hard-working, brave, knowledgeable, courageous

Donors

Impact focused, value for money, “no overheads, please”, bureaucratic, random, unpredictable, ad-hoc decisions, mysterious, black boxes, reactive and also (+) generous

What would you add?

Thanks to my atypical collaborators who inspired this blog. You know who you are!

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