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How Racial Stereotypes Prevent Team Building

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When I was growing up in Montreal, I remember my father, a high school teacher, expressed frustration whenever he went to the train station. Passengers would always assume that he was a porter and ask him for assistance. This would happen whether he was wearing a business suit or a pair jeans. He once asked a lady "Does this look like a uniform to you?" There is nothing wrong with being a porter or with any other legal occupation; however to automatically assume that a black man at a train station is a porter is an example of stereotyping.

My Dad wasn't exaggerating. When we explored the doctor's house at Black Creek Pioneer Village, another visitor pointed him out and said "Look, that's the doctor's porter." The same thing happened at Upper Canada Village but in French "Regardez. C'est le porteur de médecin."

Fast forward 23 years. Recently, I went to an informal networking event. I wore fairly new jeans and everyone else in attendance wore jeans. I had on a fashionable yet conservative jacket and a casual top. I went directly from the hairdresser to the event so there was not a single hair out of place.

For about five minutes after we arrived, there was minimal, informal chit-chat. Definitely, we had a chance to hear how other people sounded. When I mentioned that I had been to Dubai on business, the facilitator asked us to sit quietly without conversing. He didn't want us to reveal too much about our backgrounds. (As we'll see in a moment, he had nothing to worry about. What I shared did not even register with some attendees.)

For the icebreaker, which is sometimes called The Dangerous Game, we were each given a pile of index cards, one for each person in attendance. We were instructed to approach each person, one at a time make eye contact, and, without conversing, record first impressions including age, ethnicity, and occupation. We were also asked to include a few descriptive adjectives. At the end of each interaction, we exchanged cards, put the card we had just received at the bottom of the pile, and moved on to the next person.

Most feedback was consistent with what I expected but comments on 30% of the cards included:

  • Occupation: nanny, maid, blue collar
  • Adjectives: uneducated, stubborn, blue collar, angry, aggressive, bossy, sarcastic, villain, bitch

Angry? I was in a fabulous mood as I had enjoyed a turkey lunch at one of my favourite places. It was my first day back in circulation as I had been cooped up with a cold for a week. So, there was no way that I had the energy to be "aggressive" or "bossy." I have a Canadian accent and there is no way that my pattern of speech sounds "uneducated." In fact, I earn my living as a team building facilitator, professional speaker, and actress.

The majority of participants were Caucasian. What was particularly disturbing about these comments was that only a few attendees were over 40. The overwhelming majority were born long after Jim Crow Laws had been repealed and long after images of Black women as maids and nannies filled theatre and TV screens. They have grown up in an era in which Barack Obama is the President of the United States, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice served in the position of US Secretary of State, and Kofi Annan was the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

These interactions did not take place in one of the southern United States before the civil rights movement. Instead, all participants live or work in Toronto which has been described as the most multicultural city on the planet. They live in a province in which Lincoln Alexander was the Lieutenant Governor and a country in which Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean served as Governor General. Yet the stereotypes persist.

How do these dynamics play out in the corporate world? One of the most important aspects of building effective teams is to select the right team members in the first place. I have facilitated numerous workshops in Canada, Asia and the Caribbean to help executives and hiring managers make better selection decisions. Stereotypes cloud perceptions, significantly reducing the likelihood that candidates will get fair consideration and the best candidate will be selected. I give workshop participants competency based interviewing tools to move beyond the first impressions that lead to those snap 30-60 second hiring decisions we've all heard about.

Stereotypes also create barriers between co-workers. For example, during meetings, it's easy to discount the opinions and expertise of team members who we do not regard as "equals." This has a negative impact on team-building efforts. I have often heard members of visible minority groups indicate that they feel "invisible" during team meetings. When "who" presents ideas is more important than the merits of "what" they are presenting, companies are deprived of valuable expertise.

Finally, it is hard to take someone seriously and consider them for a promotion if, despite their excellent performance, we can't get beyond our perception of them as a "nanny", maid" or "blue collar worker."

To build effective teams, it is essential to avoid pigeon-holing team members based on stereotypes. According to the calendar, it's 2014. Clearly, outdated stereotypes still linger and erode team effectiveness.

Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A., is a team building facilitator, corporate event planner, professional actress, and blogger. She is the President of Executive Oasis International, a Toronto team building and management consulting firm that has served corporate clients from 16 countries in North America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

For team building and corporate event planning tips, follow the Executive Oasis International Facebook Page.