North Central Business Journal News
GETTING BEYOND COGNITIVE CATEGORIZING
(January 2002 issue)
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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