Won’t you be my neighbor?

When I was growing up, parents didn’t drive their kids to play dates or adventure sports. Your best friend was whoever lived closest to you. Your friends were at the house with the most bikes in the front yard. You only went home to do homework (with a book, notebook, encyclopedia and a pencil), watch the puppet part of Mister Rogers, eat meals or when the streetlights went on.

You climbed trees, discovered crayfish, caught fireflies, watched trains flatten pennies and played kickball. Every neighborhood had a bully, a heartthrob, a mean girl, a nerd and a popular kid.

Today, children don’t need to go to a friend’s to play a game. Distance learning transformed education. Telecommuting transformed the way we work. Audioconferencing transformed the way we meet. And technology eliminated some industries all together. Goodbye, World Book Encyclopedia.

Yet as people revisit simple times — vinyl records are on the rise and electronic book readers on the decline — some things haven’t changed. Most companies have a bully, a heartthrob, a mean girl, a nerd and a popular kid.

The problem

We stereotype because our minds need order. Sometimes we are stereotyped ourselves. Humans are programmed with a fight-or-flight mentality, which served us well as cavemen and cavewomen.

It’s easier to metaphorically put people in a box with a label and store them safely away than to deal with what makes us uncomfortable. After all, there are more pressing issues that interest us, like the iPhone 8.

The cost

When we stereotype, we discriminate. We become judge and jury without a trial. The sentence often is permanent and without bail. When co-workers are labeled difficult or not management material, we stop stewarding them to higher performance. When they realize their potential is limited, they underperform, drive others out of the organization and become an attrition statistic.

The solution

The solution comes from Mister Rogers’ theme song. When you are a “good neighbor” the doors of engagement open.

Before you stereotype, pause and put yourself in their shoes. The last time you were called a name, you probably felt unfairly judged and powerless. Sometimes we don’t want to imagine their perspective because it makes us feel defenseless. (Remember, the mammoth might eat us.) But being comfortable with our vulnerability is a springboard to compassion for others and peace for ourselves.

What we judge in others is often what we judge in ourselves — set aside resenting a colleague because she’s successful so you can learn from her, or being annoyed by a leader’s eruptions so you can build enough trust to ask what worries him.

If you’re the one being stereotyped, it’s virtually impossible to drop the label without calling attention to it. Ask for an appointment individually with key people who have labeled you.

Tell them you recognize that a negative perception exists. They would be doing you a favor if they tell you what that perception is. Do not defend yourself. Tell them you understand and ask for their advice to remedy this. Then, thank them and say you will update them on your progress. They will be intrigued to be part of your transformation.


Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE, is president of MaryLeeGannon.com, an executive coaching firm that helps busy leaders thrive, earn and influence from the convenience of their office, an airport, or at their leisure.