Labels! Labels! Labels!


No I am not talking about our consumerist obsession for branded goods and designer everything. I am referring to labels of a social kind – stereotyping. In a local context, you’ve probably heard this common stereotype where Asians are perceived as hard and effective workers, but are not outgoing. It has been found that labelling people is a way in which we categorise chunks of information and we literally label people as we meet them. It is a common human error and the truth is that we are all guilty of this ‘lazy social habit’. To demonstrate – which ethnic group is full of really smart people? Unless your answer was ‘none,’ you just made use of a stereotype

What are stereotypes?

Stereotypes are assumptions made about a group of people and are applied to individuals irrespective of their personal characteristics because of their affiliation with said group. Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral, but no matter the type, it’s important to use extreme caution around stereotypes, especially in the workplace.

Stereotyping in the Workplace

The workplace is a social landscape in which we will likely meet people from all walks of life. While diversity in the workplace sometimes creates friction and problems due to differences in gender, age, personalities and culture, it also benefits an organisation by providing a variety of ideas, vision, styles, creativity, innovation, experiences and so on.

People use stereotypes to make decisions about co-workers or managers with little or no information about the person. A stereotyped person is not seen for who she is and what she can contribute to the business. If it is possible at all to avoid or reduce stereotyping in the workplace, many areas of organisational activity could thrive better. For example, employees may engage more actively in citizenship behaviours (OCBs), the enhancement of social capital within the company, unbiased leadership, improve work processes especially in teams, a happier working environment, etc.

Why do we want to want to avoid social labelling in the workplace?

Many of the most common stereotypes are derogatory. At times, social stereotyping may lead to prejudice behaviour and discrimination. Instead of giving people the equal opportunity to prove their personal worth we assign a predefined label to them. Such behaviour is deconstructive in the workplace as it instils negativity and unfair criticism. When stereotypes persist in the workplace, candidates for promotion may be overlooked, work teams do not function properly and the corporate culture erodes.

On an individual level, it directly hampers an individual’s ability to develop personal relationships and networking skills. In a simple example, imagine getting a new coworker who graduated from a different university. If you make assumptions about your new colleague based on the stereotypes affiliated with that person’s university, you might start off with a hostile and unfriendly relationship, which could significantly impede your ability to work together. However, if you were to get to know your new coworker as an individual, you would be able either to put aside any differences for the sake of productivity or to learn some new perspectives and build a strong relationship built on mutual understanding.

Stereotypes limit management’s ability to make best use of their employees’ skills and help them develop new skills. If a manager sees Tom as an Asian person who is good with numbers but not people, he may never be given the opportunity to develop his people skills and may eventually leave the company due to lack of opportunities. Stereotypes affect employee morale and productivity and ultimately turnover rate.

Additionally, it also hinders open communication and teamwork and lead to a perception of ‘us and them’ or ‘cliques’ in which members guard information, using it as a form of power. Failing to manage and include diverse employee perspectives and skills limits the company’s creativity, problem solving and competitive abilities.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Breaking down, recognizing, and eliminating stereotypes begins with dialogue. Conversation reduces bias because we learn more about each other and reach an understanding. Conversation also reduces preconceptions by educating us on misinformation and it limits the spread of bias.

There are also other ways to eliminate stereotypes such as…

  • Respect and appreciate others’ differences. Imagine if people looked and acted the same. It would be boring!
  • Consider what you have common with other people — lots more than you think.
  • Develop empathy for the others. Try to walk in their shoes.
  • Educate yourself about different cultures and groups because expressing a stereotype about someone in front of your co-workers might even make you seem narrow-minded and judgemental

An Example of Workplace Stereotype

Baby Boomer vs. Generation Y: As the population ages, more and more people are choosing to work much longer in their careers. The Baby Boomer generation hasn’t grown up with technology as the Generation Y workers. So there is a tension between the tried and true ways of doing business versus the technological solutions of today. This generational gap can create serious friction in the work place. But instead of immediately stereotyping the individual, you should get to know the other person and appreciate each others strengths. Learn from each other.


Newcomer Woes

tumblr_mo162sDqoL1s2sa9ho1_1280Like many other graduating students who will be joining the workforce, we will soon face the common predicament of integrating into our new workplace. This is a phase of our work life that can be quite daunting. Let us explore why.

leadIntegrating into a new workplace… why is it weird?

new_guy-770358First of all, it requires one to negotiate a new identity. Coming into a new office where nobody really knows who you are or who you claim to be and vice versa, you don’t know who anybody else claims to be means that other people don’t know what to expect from you and you don’t know what to expect from them. Trust is not yet established and therefore the ability to predict each others’ behaviour is low. This makes the process interesting yet alienating at the same time.

new-employeeAdditionally, there are the unwritten rules that manifest themselves over time and form part of the culture or subculture of the organisation. They underscore the ways of doing things in a manner that you have possibly not encountered before. It might seem bizarre to you but normal to the rest of your colleagues who are already accustomed to such established norms. The implication is that this could make it difficult for one to respond or behave in a way that is sensible to your new colleagues even though you may find the opposite much more obvious.

Here, I would like to emphasise that I am coming from the perspective of the individual (ie. not how organisations can better help newcomers to integrate). The focus is on how, we, as prospective newcomers in a highly demanding workforce, settle into our new environment where the employer may not help us to inculturate, for instance, by telling you about the organisation’s values and vision. This post is not going to be a set of tips on how you should learn as much as possible about who hired you. Rather, I would like to touch on something a little more delicate.

How to figure out what you’re not being told?

efeff4edb5210ab70b546c57fb507d5312d8e3c5cb13d8f93e391be6f2dc99a1How many of us have made mistakes at work because we were not informed of a specific detail? It is often extremely tempting to cry out “Hey! Nobody told me I couldn’t do this… or that…” but you very well know it in your best interest to keep this to yourself, keep your head down, lest other people judge this even more so as a sign of incapability. Understandably, what you don’t know would not logically cross your mind so that your brain can tell you to attend to the mysterious and elusive matter in question. Yet this is a tricky and touchy problem that many people face… including myself of course.

I recently chanced upon an interesting article written by Art Markman who is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He reveals how can you know what you don’t know? A little preparation and reading between the lines reveals the truths you aren’t being told.

He claims that important information is often omitted in everyday conversations and sometimes, complex problems. I would also like to add that sometimes we may not take note of this because we are preoccupied with other concerns. As such, we need to learn to recognise if important information is missing and that there are some measures we can take to detect what is not being said.

1.       Prepare for conversations

Similar to having a sense of the appropriate solutions to problems, we also tend to cultivate an understanding of the scope of conversations with other co-workers. For instance, you begin to get a sense of what information you need and when you can offer back similar information. To prepare for conversations, prepare a mental checklist of the information you need and consider who you will be talking to. Could they possibly have any motives for holding back any of the information you need? Or if it just so happens to slip his or her mind, prompt the other party by asking questions or steer the conversation in directions that get you what you need.

2.       Bring a list

It can be hard to remember to get all the information you need in the heat of conversations. A physical checklist of questions to be asked and matters to deliberate will be useful. Take notes and ensure all the issues have been covered. This ensures that the key points of the discussion will not be forgotten after the meeting or conversation.

3.       Bring a friend or a colleague

Sometimes we might fail to pick up on information being omitted as we tend to focus on fitting the information being given in ways that align with our agenda. Bringing a neutral third party such as a colleague gives you the advantage of a second opinion from an objective viewpoint.

4.       Ask what else you need to know

People who omit information intentionally typically believe that it is more ethical than lying about it. At the end of an unproductive conversation, ask the other person whether there is anything they have left out or anything that you really need to know. This simple question could potentially change the person’s mind and fill you in on what has been left out.

At the end of the day, we can only strive to keep in mind that sometimes information is omitted. We can do this by making it a part of our work processes to find out what we are not being told and subsequently take the necessary measures.


Helping newcomers integrate into a workplace, Dan Cable:

Debunking the Myth of the Open-plan Office

Having attended OB classes thus far, I particularly noticed that the concept of the open-plan collaborative workspace has been brought up quite often. As an architecture student, at first it was mildly amusing how architecture could somehow be relevant in my business class (which also helped me discover that I can never escape its clutches). Then it occurred to me that it is actually quite interesting and therefore inspired me to discuss something that would relate both disciplines.

Now we are all aware of the trend in which organizations are moving towards- productive and creative workspaces, most notably the open-plan office space intended to foster communication, spark innovation and display transparency. Before any research, what I knew was only as good as assumptions to me. I wanted to learn more as I had some questions of my own. What does the open-plan really mean? Surely the design of successful open-plan workspaces consists of a more complex structure than it sounds. What is the linkage between open-plan spaces and, productivity and creativity? I wanted to be convinced, by understanding the fundamental rationale behind this relationship. And ultimately it begs the question, is the open-plan workspace a fool proof, sure-fire way to increase creativity and productivity in the work place?1Open-plan offices are favoured by companies largely because of economic factors – more employees can be housed in a smaller space. But there are also supposed communication benefits. The idea is that open spaces foster more communication between staff and boost community spirit. Yet, a new study based on a survey of over 42,000 US office workers in 303 office buildings finds no evidence to support this supposition whatsoever. (Jungsoo Kim, and Richard de Dear 2013) The study found that workers in enclosed private offices were the most satisfied with their work space followed by those in shared offices, followed by those in open-plan offices. Distraction by noise and loss of privacy were identified as the major causes of workspace dissatisfaction. Thus we can see how this contradicts the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction. And there are even more studies debunking the myth of the open-plan office.

However, this is not to say that we should entirely dismiss the open-plan workspace altogether. The open-plan workspace has its advantages as well such as ample daylighting, with less walls more natural light infiltrates the building. Undeniably, it provides more opportunities for tacit learning and interactions over enclosed offices. In my opinion, the success of the open-plan office lies in its execution.  Here, we can imagine two distinct types of the open-plan office space. Type A, your typical bond-trading floor like office with long rows of shared desks. Type B, the unconventional sprawling lofty offices of successful organisations such as Google.

Work   3

There is a stark comparison between the two and it is not difficult to choose which workspace one would rather be in. Both exhibit the open-plan typology but vary vastly in terms of the use of the space. The design of open-plan offices is not merely to provide a homogeneous space to contain people but an orchestrated blend of spaces encompassing variation(varying degrees of privacy) and stimulation(visually, emotionally and mentally) that flow seamlessly together.

So can there still be a link between the open-plan and creativity and productivity?

Ease of communication and collaboration aside, I think that we can look at the open-plan office as a kind of democratisation of space. With the walls down, everyone enjoys the same views, everyone has access to the same spaces with the same amenities. Even better, if your boss sits two tables away from you, sharing the same workspace with everyone else. (Especially in the modern workplace nowadays, with the mediation of space, we witness the flattening of organizational hierarchy… But I digress and this topic will be kept for another post!) What this does is it empowers the individual by making them feel as important, which consequently encourages, for instance, creative self-efficacy.  It also articulates that the people are part of the company culture and brand reflected in the design of the work space, thus boosting morale and inspiring better productivity levels.

What then, should be considered in the design of work spaces? Is the open-plan foolproof?

While the open-plan remains the choice design for many offices across the globe, it should not be adopted simplistically (meaning long shared desks and cramped aisles). It is important to note that work style influences workspace preference across most industries and organisations. And since work styles within organisations themselves also vary, what should be embedded subtly in the open- plan workspace are conditions that allow for a multitude of work processes that require varying degrees of privacy.  This can be achieved by the use of screens, green walls and furniture placement, etc. With more diversity in the types of spaces around the office, the workspace can better account for the complexities of workplace dynamics. In addition, the open-plan workspace can include portions of spaces intended for activities unique to the culture of the organisation, this can come in the form of a ping-pong table or an idea board. These are just two examples but what I wanted to bring across is that the right kind of space has the ability to stimulate people in the workspace which is essential for the human condition, as one may also observe in the office designs of companies such as Google or Microsoft.

Alexi Marmot, an architect and professor at UCL University College London says office layout shouldn’t be a compromise between private and public space, but one which offers both things to its employees whenever they need them. “We know from what young people are telling us that they prefer much more free-flowing places,” says Marmot. She describes a building she visited in Switzerland which offered workers a choice of sofas, coffee table areas, libraries, pool-style recliner chairs and even “a botanical garden with a few work tables among the plants”.

I would like to end this post with a video of an interesting office design which may be achieved in a not so sizeable office space. Click to view below!

Introducing the Superdesk


El-Zeiny, Rasha Mahmoud Ali. “Interior Design of Workplace and Performance Relationship: Private Sector Corporations in Egypt.” (2013).