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North Central Business Journal News

(January 2002 issue)

           Cognitive categorizing is a phenomenon observed in how humans think.  We think in terms of categories.  Whatever we experience, we put in a category.  Most times, the specifics of what we experience get lost in the category.  Instead, what we have experienced takes on aspects of the typical element of that category.

          Usually, this cognitive categorizing makes life easier for us.  We don’t have to stop and analyze every single incident of our lives, which would prohibit dealing with several things at the same time.

          However, this cognitive categorizing also leads to problems such as stereotypes.  Stereotypes occur when we inadequately categorize.  People stereotype when they lump several people together because of a salient, but irrelevant, feature. 

          The first thing we notice about a person is that person’s gender.  We immediately categorize someone as male or female.  The second thing we notice is someone’s skin color.  And the third thing we notice is a rough estimate of their age category. 

          These tendencies to immediate categorizing  can cause us problems with stereotypes if we have not had broad experience with people in a gender/ethnic/age category.  While women have been in business for over a century, it has only been within the past 20 years or so that women have been in management to any great extent. 

          That means that there are lots of people who have had little experience with a woman executive.  When they run across a woman executive, they are likely to miscategorize and not place that woman in their “executive” category.  Women in business have complained for years that “I have to be three times as good to be equal”.  That is because the very behaviors that normally are classified as effective leader behaviors – assertive, dominant, decisive, articulate – can lead people to misclassify a woman in an executive position displaying these behaviors into a less complimentary category that rhymes with witch.

          Women (or anyone else who doesn’t fit the traditional executive category characteristics of white male, between 5'10" and 6'2", within the ages of 45 to 60) may have problems with stereotypes.  It is understandable but fortunately correctable.

          If a business person suspects that cognitive categorizing by one’s employees or customers is interfering, a useful tactic is to acknowledge that this could be happening.  This can be done in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way through a statement such as, “It’s unusual to find someone like me in this position, isn’t it?”  A statement like this allows people to consciously recognize that they have little experience mixing two or more categories, which will help them do so appropriately. 

          A second tactic is to continue behaving as if stereotyping is not happening.  It takes people a while to recategorize.   Having initially acknowledged that stereotyping could be occurring, it is now hekpful to act as if it isn’t.  This gives people the time they need to get used to a non-traditional person in an executive category, and provides them with lots of incidents of that type of person operating effectively. 

          Eventually, people will be able to readjust their categories so that they include the non-traditional person within their executive category.  And they will forget that they at one time didn’t recognize this executive’s abilities. 

 Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.   Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses.  Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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