Dismissing stereotypes and creating tolerant working cultures

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November 16th marks the UN’s International Day For Tolerance, so we’ve been discussing tolerance and intolerance this week at Equal Talent – nothing particularly strange about this topic of conversation, given that we’re in the business of behaviours.

And yet tolerance isn’t enough of a topic of conversation at work, is it? Tolerance isn’t often a word that is heard when discussing company culture. Strange, given that companies would have us form a united front, that work is the place where we spend most of our time together as adults, and where trust and collaboration is known to be a pre-requisite for great results.

So let’s get clear on what tolerance means: it’s about having respect for others and their opinions and beliefs, especially when they may differ from one’s own. It is an appreciation of diverse backgrounds and an absence of hostilities or prejudices.

And yet, based on my experience as an executive coach, however, I can’t recall many organisations where reportage of acts of hostility, prejudice and discrimination aren’t frequent and forthcoming. Individuals feeling excluded for being different, gender or BAME stereotyping, micro-aggressions. The modern workplace is an intolerant world. Mistrust, competition and conflict are far more prevalent than peace and harmony.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that tolerance isn’t a word widely used in the workplace. There is plenty of tolerating of difficult people going on, and intolerable behaviours, but not much tolerance.

According to the UN, intolerance “can arise from the desire to assert superiority over communities which are different from one’s own, and is at its most dangerous when it is used for political purposes”. Intolerance can also arise from competition between factions over scarce resources. Budgets, bonuses and the attention of leadership, as some work-related examples.

The resultant effect of intolerance can be discontent, resentment, conflict and sometimes hatred. A ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.

Let me ask you: in the context of your workplace, how familiar is this construct starting to sound to you?

So how do we create cultures of tolerance at work? The UN recommends that there are 3 ways in which tolerance can be fostered, so let’s apply their


Helen Keller famously said that the highest result of education is tolerance.

Conversely, ignorance about cultural, religious and ethnic diversity can lead to insecurity. However, via education, there can be a better understanding of others’ different beliefs and ways of living and working, and a greater acceptance of them. There is a false assumption made in the workplace that because we’re adults we’re ‘fully’ educated. We’re not. We’re all on a
developmental spectrum for the entirety of our lives. And some of us have a very limited education – either academically, personally, emotionally or socially. Organisations shouldn’t assume that their employees have been taught about tolerance, or indeed other important human rights principles.

After all, such things weren’t on every school’s curriculum or in every set of family values.

Legal framework

 There are robust international laws which punish acts of intolerance, such as hate crimes and racial discrimination. And so why do acts of discrimination such as bullying fly under the radar of some workplaces’ employee protection regulations? In a recent client organisation’s diversity & inclusion committee coaching workshop I asked the question: “What behaviours does your organisation reward?” A tolerance, an avoidance, a turning a blind eye (“because he is a rainmaker”) of behaviours such as misogyny sends as clear a mandate as intolerance of such discriminatory acts. Organisations must have robust frameworks and be confident and consistent in their communication of the consequences and penalties for acts of intolerance.

Dismissing stereotypes 

Stereotyping individuals or groups, or having pre-set notions about them, is
often due to misinformation and fosters prejudices against different groups.

For example, when on the verge of selling a business I fell pregnant, the buyers pulled out of the deal. They made false assumptions that my carrying a baby and taking parental leave would negatively impact on the business’s performance. Organisations must monitor, challenge and address assumptions, beliefs and misinformation that lead to false judgements, intolerance or prejudice against others. And in order for organisations to do this, individuals and groups must report stereotyping expediently – and there must be no fear of recrimination for them doing so.

Other examples of stereotyping that people have shared with me: women never being invited on golf jollies, being asked to prepare the room for a
the meeting, being given drinks orders, parents being asked where their children were while attending work evening events, a woman being told that their careers were over when they fell pregnant. A black man being asked by a colleague where one might procure some illegal drugs.

Such is the wealth of career-limiting assumptions and decisions that we make, based on stereotyping and misinformation. Please think before you voice what might be a hugely offensive and damaging misgiving about someone else. If you say it consciously then you are prejudiced; you are discriminating against your colleague.

Given these real-world work examples, please now ask yourself: how tolerant or intolerant is your workplace? On a scale of 1-10? And if it’s less than tolerant, think about how you might instigate some positive change to make your working environment more accepting of everyone.

For example, how well educated are you, and your colleagues about multicultural, religious, gender and ethnic diversity? Don’t be embarrassed or feel ashamed about what you don’t know – ignorance is part of being human.

There are plenty of parents out there who don’t know what it’s like to be the primary carer of their children, for example, and the challenges this presents to their careers (challenges – not limits!). Is this education drive on the company’s future D&I roadmap?

Do you know what the company’s legal framework is for dealing with intolerance and prejudice? If not, find out. And how does your culture seek to eradicate stereotyping? This is an ongoing and collective effort and it’s not about encouraging whistleblowers or creating a blame culture. Instead, it’s about our growth as more tolerant, inclusive and high-performing teams and organisations where no-one’s opportunities or outputs are limited.

If you’d like to have a confidential conversation about how you can educate and lead a cultural change programme within your workplace, to create more tolerance, inclusion and belonging, please contact us.

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