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Stereotypes and business negotiations

Human beings are prone to stereotyping—that is, making generalized assumptions about individuals or groups. Thefreedictionary.com defines stereotype as “a conventional, formulaic and oversimplified conception, image or opinion.”  Sometimes, stereotypes derive from a real situation or experience, but are then applied without regard for the individual or current situation. For instance, there is a stereotype that Asians are math whizzes or that men are better drivers than women.

Gender stereotypes are particularly widespread. Assumptions such as “women are more pliable” or “men are more aggressive” can certainly backfire during a negotiation. In the article “Gender Stereotyping: A Key Barrier,” the authors argue that gender stereotyping about women in leadership position has made it difficult for women to move up through the ranks. A 2007 survey is cited and says:

The report argued that gender stereotyping results in organizations routinely underestimating and under utilizing women’s leadership talent. The 2006 Catalyst Census shows that while women make up over 50 per cent of management, professional and related occupations, only 15.6 per cent of Fortune 500 corporate officers and 14.6 per cent of Fortune 500 board directors were women.

International negotiations  may be affected by stereotypes that team members hold about certain ethnic groups.  The article “The Power of Stereotypes” from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, says:

…seasoned negotiators often hear stories about the unethical behaviors of people of other nationalities. … Ambiguity can lead us to reach sinister conclusions about the motives of our counterparts, particularly when we lack a solid understanding of an opponent’s culture.

The article goes on to say:

we tend to overuse the stereotypes that arise from these small differences, and these stereotypes block us from noting important individuating information. Thus, we too often act as if the person on the other side of the table represents the cultural stereotype we’re expecting.

Although stereotypes are not always negative, they can often be wrong and can lead a negotiation off  on a bad path.  Because a stereotype is an assumption, it should always be tested. Are you generalizing or is this particular idea or thought valid for this situation and person?

Have you ever been derailed by holding a stereotype during a negotiation? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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