Assumptions, Assumptions – Stereotypes and project teams

Stereotypes are familiar to most people via initiatives to reduce discrimination in the workplace and news reports highlighting the wider impact it has on the society we live in. Most people know of them, even if they have never heard of Cognitive Bias.

They were first identified in 1933 and are described as overgeneralized beliefs about a category of people. People develop stereotypes from a mixture of facts, experience and cultural understanding.

When we use stereotypes, we assume the stereotype holds true for every individual person in that category.

Stereotypes are bad? Right?

Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Why do we stereotype?

Humans are social creatures. We have this intrinsic need to be part of a group and know where we belong. We want to feel ourselves part of a group with shared aims, ideals and values.

When we come across someone who isn’t part of our group, we need to assess them quickly to see if they are friend or foe. So we use our stereotypes firstly as a survival mechanism when we can’t treat everyone as a tabula rasa and discover what they’re like over time. It gives us somewhere to start when dealing with new people.

After that we use stereotypes as thinking shortcuts to help us build relationships without expending too much mental effort.

And we use them throughout our daily lives. Do you know the phrase “First impressions count”? We change how we look to make other people think we are competent, or intelligent or successful, because we know how to play to their stereotypes. It’s a big part of how we interact with people.

And our lazy brain loves stereotypes. Look at our affinity for personality questionnaires such as Myers Briggs, Belbin or even BuzzFeed quizzes. We delight in and can learn much from categorising both ourselves and other people.

The two stereotypes

Explicit stereotypes are ones that people are willing to verbalise and admit to other people. So you, might hear someone say “Everyone who works in accounts is boring” or “Everyone who works in IT is nerd”. People are aware they hold these stereotypes and use them to judge other people.

Implicit stereotypes are part of an individual’s subconscious and they usually have no control or awareness of them. Gender or ethnicity stereotypes are generally implicit stereotypes.

So this is just about how we view other people?

Whether they’re explicit or implicit, people don’t only believe stereotypes about other people, but they believe them about themselves. So if you have a stereotype that Creative people can’t do maths, and you identify as a Creative then you may believe that YOU can’t do maths and so just not try. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What’s the link between stereotypes and discrimination?

A problem with stereotypes inside (and outside) the workplace is that they can lead to discrimination.

  • Stereotypes are thoughts.
  • If that thought gets an emotional component with it, then it becomes a prejudice. And this can be either a positive prejudice for someone you feel favourably towards or a negative prejudice if for someone you feel unfavourably towards.
  • When you act on that, the behaviour component then becomes a discrimination.

Based on your stereotype of a person you may treat them better or worse than the evidence of their behaviour towards you would warrant.

What does this mean at work?

1) In your team, you may have stereotypes about other parts of the business, “Those process heads in QA” or “The Mavericks in Sales and Marketing.”

These stereotypes impact how you collaborate and hinder delivering well as a team.


  • Get to know them as people – what are they REALLY like
  • Understand what their working day entails. Does their behaviour fulfil your stereotype, or are you creating problems that don’t exist with your assumptions?
  • How do they like to be communicated with? How can you collaborate with them most effectively?

2) In projects, make sure that you have a real stakeholder representation rather than just making assumptions about groups of people. And make sure that you have a way of engaging them to hear their true voices.

3) One of the best ways of overcoming stereotypes is peer challenge. It’s hard to see your own biases, but if you see them in other people, highlight them.  You can always ask, “Is that true or are we just working on stereotypes here?”

We can’t get away from using stereotypes when dealing with people we are unfamiliar with, but we should be aware how they can constrain our thinking and behaviours, and develop approaches to make sure we get the best from everyone we work with.

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