HBSWK: Dangers of Stereotyping People

Was Google CEO Sundar Pichai right to fire engineer James Damore after his condemnation of the company’s diversitry initiatives? Of course, answers Bill George; treating colleagues as gender stereotypes rather than as individuals poisons the workplace.

Google software engineer James Damore’s ten-page manifesto excoriating his employer for its diversity initiatives incited a major controversy in August about affirmative action and free speech. Damore’s text went viral to 40,000 people at Google and millions more around the world before Google CEO Sundar Pichai terminated him. The ensuing debate expanded far beyond the Google campus, during which many people sided with Damore as being treated unfairly for expressing his opinions.

The central issue here is not political correctness, free speech, or affirmative action. It is relating to people as authentic human beings, not as representatives of a group or class. Great harm is done when groups of people are stereotyped as having certain characteristics, rather than looking deeper at the individual person.

Pichai correctly analyzed this as the issue, noting that Damore’s document “crosses the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” This violated Google’s code of conduct, thereby triggering his termination.

In his manifesto, Damore asserted that women have more “openness directed toward feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas, a stronger interest in people rather than things, prefer jobs in social or artistic areas, extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness, and neuroticism, characterized by high anxiety and lower stress tolerance.” As the Economist magazine pointed out, he justified his assertions by cherry-picking research on gender differences.

The real risk of Damore’s generalizations, expressed in a business context, is that they give license to people to behave as if those beliefs are true. This can lead to hidden or overt discrimination against women in the workplace. Such stereotypes have been used for decades by majority groups to hold people back and put them down for their race, ethnic origins, sexual preferences, and religion, as well as their gender. The aftermath of the Charlottesville demonstrations by neo-Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists brought these once-hidden issues back to the forefront of social consciousness.

Stereotyping contributes directly to unconscious bias, a subject about which Mahzarin Banaji, chair of Harvard’s psychology department, has written extensively. In male-dominated environments, these biases keep women from advancing and make their work lives uncomfortable.

In my experience, Damore’s assertions don’t match the reality in today’s corporate environment. Having worked with female CEOs under enormous pressure, such as General Motors’ Mary Barra, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, DuPont’s Ellen Kullman, and Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns, I have witnessed firsthand just how well they handle extremely stressful situations. For Damore to say women are more neurotic, anxious, and lack tolerance for stress implies that women cannot handle top leadership jobs.

Irresponsible generalizations about groups of people lead to individuals being judged by external characteristics such as gender, race, and national origin rather than the authentic person within. As with many complex issues, business leaders must explore these foundational issues of identity with compassion, humility, and sensitivity.

The real danger from stereotyping

In my classes at Harvard Business School (HBS) many executives express concerns about experiencing these biases in their workplaces. However, we have learned through our executive leadership classes, which put people in diverse groups of six people, that encouraging them to open up and share their authentic selves, life stories, crucibles, and their hopes and dreams enable them to flourish and grow as leaders by feeling fully accepted.

The real danger of labeling people by their external characteristics is that it robs them of their uniqueness and even their humanity. As employers like Google attempt to create authentic cultures that enable people to be themselves, categorizing them according to their gender, race, or national origin inhibits people from expressing their true feelings and may even cause them to wear masks for fear of being stereotyped.

As a white American male, I recognize that throughout my life I have been the beneficiary of positive assumptions about my abilities and my potential—assumptions that did not benefit most of my female colleagues. I have not had to overcome discrimination based on my gender or race that many others have faced. Yet, I find Damore’s blanket statements that men prefer things to people; are less open, less extroverted, and less cooperative; have less empathy; and are less interested in work-life balance than women are not necessarily true among today’s corporate leaders. These are the very traits that the authentic leaders in my research —both male and female—strive to achieve.

It is regrettable that such important issues as workplace culture, creating environments that do not discriminate or stereotype groups of people, or ensuring that all employees have equal opportunities to succeed are being consumed by the larger political debate in our country. The challenges of building healthy workplaces have been with us for many decades. Google is at the forefront of progress in this area, as Laszlo Bock, its human resource head, captured so well in his book, Work Rules. If the controversies stirred up by Damore’s manifesto lead to healthy, open discussions at companies determined to make progress in this complex area, the Google affair will have had a salutary benefit.

Only by eliminating stereotyping in the workplace—both explicit and implicit—can companies enable employees to be themselves and behave authentically. Add to that the need to judge all individuals on their merits and their performance, not making assumptions about them based on flawed stereotypes. Then companies can create true meritocracies where men and women perform to their full potential.

Bill George is Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, former Chair & CEO of Medtronic, and author of Discover Your True North.

This content was originally posted on HBSWK.hbs.edu on 9/14/17.