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Stereotypes, Racism, and Identity


As an Organizational Behavior Consultant, it is my belief that everyone has deeply-ingrained stereotypes about different groups of people – particularly those who are “different” from us. Stereotypes are formed by generalizations that we make about others based on preconceived assumptions. We use them to predict possible behaviors and patterns and assume moral and ethical values that make them trustworthy or dangerous. A “generalization” is a form of deductive reasoning that helps us understand phenomena and build hypothesis about what we witness or experience before reaching a conclusion. Most of the time, we shortcut the process and end up turning a generalization into what we consider to be a factual statement. When we attach a value judgment of good or bad to that generalization, it then becomes a stereotype. 

As humans, we need to belong to a group or tribe in order to define our identity and feel a sense of belonging. This tribe provides the context, or universe, where our fundamental beliefs and assumptions are formed and constantly reinforced. Through this process, we develop our own perceptions of right and wrong. Most of our core stereotypes are established through our socialization process and based on the truisms of our tribe, or identity group. These groups can be defined by many things such as religion, nationality, color or tone of skin, place of origin, socio-economical condition, degree of education, ideological or political ideas, occupation, or any other segmentation that provides us with a sense of identity and differentiates us from others.

An essential part of belonging to any given tribe is the adherence to, and integration of, the tribal narrative – the doctrines we hear, the “should’s” and “should not’s,” what is or is not acceptable behavior, who is to be welcomed and trusted and who is not. It defines who WE are and who THEY are. It differentiates “us” from “them” – which, in most cases, translates into what makes us better than or superior to them. We create myths and revise history; we write books, paint images, adhere to dress codes, and use material possessions to reinforce our identity, confirm our paradigm, and differentiate ourselves from others.

Here is where our stereotypes become the essence that will guide how we engage with others. Are we going to discriminate against them? … Destroy them? … Subjugate them? Are they friends or enemies? If we have a common ground and/or similar values and are similar in appearance or demeanor, perhaps we will try to befriend them, integrate them, or even procreate with them. But if they look, act, or dress differently, and have dissimilar values and beliefs, we may try to vanquish them, exterminate them, or devalue and minimize them. THIS is what racism is – and unfortunately it is part of the human makeup.

The first time I encountered discrimination, I was only 9 years old – and I still remember the incident like it was yesterday. Most of my friends and neighbors were Mestizo Catholics, but there were also a few Jewish kids like me – all born in Mexico to refugee parents from Russia, Poland, or other Eastern European countries. My best friend was my next-door neighbor, and we’d play with all the other kids in the neighborhood. As kids we didn’t pay much attention to, or even think about, our religious or ethnic tribes. We were just kids and our “tribe” was the name of the street we lived on. In my case, it was Ensenada Street. We were the “kids from Ensenada” and our “enemies” were the kids from Cholula Street. We often had dinner or snacks at each other’s homes and watched black-and-white TV at the home of one of the few kids whose family was able to afford such a luxury. My best friend was one those who had a TV. 

Every Sunday his mother, a very devout Catholic, would lead her family of seven to church to attend mass. One particular Sunday, my friend came back from church and said to me, “You killed our Lord Jesus and all Jews need to be punished for it.” I was both surprised and terrified – I had no idea what he was talking about. I only knew that I didn’t kill anyone, and that I was completely innocent. I also knew that neither my mom or dad would do such a thing. After that Sunday, I was not welcome at my friend’s house anymore, and for several weeks we did not talk or play with each other. Our relationship eventually went back to being “normal,” but deep inside I always felt a great divide. I was a Jew, I was not part of his tribe, and I was hated by his mom for being a Jew. 

Core Identity Groups or Tribes

When we are born, we automatically belong to an identity group: our family. At the same time, our family is also part of other identity groups that provide the family unit with values, beliefs, history, and truisms about the world and others in it. Core identity groups are defined by ethnicity (color of skin, facial features, eye color, color and texture of hair) gender, religion, place of birth (country/region) and parents’ origin. These five fundamental elements overlap and define our initial tribe or identity group.

In my case, I was born in Mexico City to Eastern European parents. I’m white with blue eyes, blond hair, and a prominent Semitic nose. My tribe of origin is white, Mexican, and Ashkenazim (Jews born in Eastern and Central Europe, i.e. Russia, Poland, Hungary, Germany and Austria). Throughout my formative years, I attended a school that only accepted kids like me where I learned about the virtues of our tribe and our suffering at the hands of the others. I learned about the Inquisition, the Holocaust, pogroms against Jews throughout Eastern Europe, and the creation of the State of Israel as a place for our tribe to endure and prosper. I learned about Mexican history, the Conquistadores, the Mexican War of Independence, the Mexican Revolution, our Mexican Heroes, and the Mexican progressive Constitution of 1917 that developed my identity as a Mexican. I attended exclusive summer camps and belonged to the only Mexican Ashkenazi Jewish Boy Scout Troup. We also belonged to a synagogue whose congregation came to Mexico at the same time as my parents from the same part of Europe. We lived in a very exclusive, isolated, and comfortable bubble, where everything and everyone outside of it were potential anti-Semites, or the enemy. This tribal bubble was so extreme that we took pride in differentiating ourselves from the Mexican Sephardic Jews or the Mexican Arab Jews. We tolerated them, but looked down on them; they were Jews, but not our kind of Jews, and marrying one of them was shameful and consider an intermarriage.

Secondary Identity Groups

The characteristics that define our secondary identity groups are those that by nature, or by intentional selection, become part of our identity through our life. They are a source of further differentiation, and some become critical in how we define ourselves or how others define us. Each one of these groups, or differentiators, are based on values, norms, paradigms, assumptions, and stereotypes of themselves or others. It would be impossible to list all of them – they are the ecosystem of every human being and they are fluid and constantly evolving over time. Examples may include political affiliation, age, marital status, occupation, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, social class, financial stature – the list is endless. Our identity is constantly shifting, relative to the dominant majority and how that majority chooses to define “others” – and how others define themselves relative to the dominant majority or the tribe in power.

We, as people, are blinded by and afraid of our racism. We are a country divided by those who overtly let racism control their lives and those who deny their racism and pretend to live in a colorblind society. There are also people who are aware of their biases, and mindfully work to overcome them by engaging in education and exploration, seeking to build a bridge of understanding. Adversely, when a tribe or group base their collective identity on the destruction of others, there is no bridge to build ⎯there is only hate, violence, and destruction. Furthermore, we only tend to let go of our biases and stereotypes when we are in the presence of a catastrophic event, or when facing a common powerful enemy that threatens our existence or freedom. I also believe that we shift the truisms or doctrines of the tribe based on the context around us.

The best thing we can do is to practice self-awareness and pause if we find ourselves giving into stereotypes without provocation. The next time you feel suspicious about someone who is “different” than you, take a step back and realize that this person may have values, feelings, and ideas similar to yours. Compassion for others is always an effective way to work towards greater understanding. The first step toward creating a diverse and inclusive society and community is to individually acknowledge our racism and take responsibility for it. The second step is to be mindful of it when dealing with others that may look, think or sound different than us – and identify the overt, covert, or latent racism or stereotyping we are engaging in when passing judgement on that individual or group of people. The third, and possibly the most crucial step, is discovering the origin of our racism and bigotry. We need to dissect and question the archaic beliefs and assumptions that were passed onto us by the narrative of our identity group or the bubble in which we have lived. 

The Function of a Dysfunctional Senior Leadership Team

Team Building, Workplace Insight

How does a dysfunctional senior leadership team function? This question may sound oxymoronic – but let me tell you how this works.

Dysfunction creates content for a team’s narrative, providing a context for heroic acts and an ecosystem where exclusive subgroups or individuals can claim their uniqueness and differentiation. It fosters dependency on the leader and increases the value of his/her emotional currency across the team and the organization. It also encourages centralization of power in the leader and those whom he or she favors; creating a climate of overt and covert competition with winners and losers. It sets the perfect stage for a Greek tragedy – the script full of pain, frustration, anger, disappointment and skepticism –

a script which contains protagonists, victims, and rich supporting roles. The dysfunctional dynamics of a team changes the overarching purpose of its members where they lose perspective of the goals of the organization and become wrapped up in their own play.

Dysfunction gives legitimacy to how team members structure their time and how they play out their roles.

They have meeting after meeting, conference call after conference call, and bring in outside counsel to address their poor organizational performance. They introduce experts to present the organization with lessons on how to become better leaders, how to increase an employee’s engagement, how to address employee retention, and how to improve customer satisfaction. They go off-site to discuss long term strategies, sales forecasts, financial planning, and many other issues in order to fill and structure their time while maintaining their dysfunction and proving the success of this Greek tragedy. As it keeps playing day after day, year after year, over and over again, the actors (or team members as they call themselves) lose interest, get burned out, become cynical, quit, or get fired – and new players are brought in as replacements. At times the actors switch roles, but the play is the same. The scariest part is that after you witness this play several times or actually “live it” for long time, it gets normalized or becomes a comedy much like, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This dysfunction can become embedded in the organization’s culture and a central part of its mythology – not unlike the dysfunctional family of Gods and Goddesses who all lived on Mount Olympus.

Why Can’t People Just Listen!


snoringI have been in the business of leadership development, change management, and executive coaching for quite some time. Through the years, I have often heard CEOs, senior leaders, managers, supervisors, teachers, wives (including mine), husbands, fathers, mothers, mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law (mine included) as well as sons and daughters (including my own) say something along the lines of “I don’t know how many times I’ve told you that you should do this or that, but you just don’t get it,” or “you just don’t care,” or “you just don’t listen,” or “it’s hard for me to understand why you are so stubborn, and I don’t know how to get you to listen to me and change.”

Ask yourself, how many times have you used a statement such as, “You need to change for your own good,” or “If you would just listen to me,” or “How many times have I told you to stop doing that.” Last week, I was sitting and having a conversation with a successful, small business owner and friend. In our conversation, she complained about her employees and proceeded to say, “I have been telling them to do it this way but nothing happens, and we deal with the same quality issue over and over again. What is it that I’m doing wrong? Why can’t they just change?” In the middle of the conversation, I found myself disengaging from the here and now and thinking back to a similar situation in my own life where I was the “cause” of the complaint. Read More

Simple Principles of Planned Change


planned-changedAs I think about planned change in organizations, I think of it as a conscientious decision which is made by some entity in the organization with the authority to bring about change. The change may be reactive and triggered by a current problem, situation, or business opportunity—for example, implementing a new MIS system because the old one is not robust enough to meet the current needs of the organization or the change may be proactive and based upon a vision or future desired state—for example, expanding internationally and opening ten company-owned distribution centers in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia.

In most cases, the “mechanical” elements of the change are easily identified and the reason for the change is clear to an organization’s sponsors—the money may be allocated for its funding; a flow chart or critical PAT chart describing what the activities are may be in place as well as a timetable for the implementation of the change; and there may be a list of preferred vendors to provide the technology, expertise, and training to successfully achieve the expected outcomes from the well-thought-out implementation. All these planning strategies should guarantee “smooth sailing,” but in many cases, smooth sailing becomes “tough sailing in stormy waters” and this is due to the lack of a planned “commitment process.” The planners of the change often fail to develop and implement such a planning strategy. Read More

Change Management: Stability is Just an Illusion


change-stabilityThere is an immense amount of information about change and change management in books, case studies, newsletters, magazine articles, and blogs, etc. There is not much new to be said about the topic, but in this blog I would like to share some of my thoughts and reflections. When I think about change, I think about life and the constant unfolding of our existence. Nothing stays steady, everything morphs.

As humans, we spend our lives structuring our time, giving meaning to our experiences, staying viable by fighting entropy, and maintaining our relevance. In some ways, organizations experience the same process. They are organisms or systems that exist for a reason and that gives them meaning. An organization has processes, procedures, plans, programs, timelines, and meetings that provide structure to the life of the organization. There is a core “input-throughput-output” process that makes an organization viable as well as processes that address problems that may be threatening to the organization. Organizations also have processes that keep them relevant in the eyes of their customers and society at large. So, what is it about the concept of CHANGE that, in most cases, provokes a strong reaction, often with negative implications, in most people within organizations?
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