Overcoming Personal Stereotypes

Judith Katz Posted by Judith Katz.

Fueled by her passion for addressing systemic barriers and known for her boundless energy and sharp analytical mind, Judith Katz brings more than 30 years of experience to her work in strategic culture change. She is the co-author with Frederick A. Miller of Be BIG: Step Up, Step Out, Be Bold and The Inclusion Breakthrough: Unleashing the Real Power of Diversity.

Overcoming Personal Stereotypes


Most people think they don’t have biases. Often, people who go through educational processes addressing diversity and inclusion think they are aware of their biases. That’s the insidious nature of biases. The ones we don’t know about are the ones we act upon most often.

I was cofacilitating an education session in which we were exploring the roots of the “isms.” We discussed how each of us has a “page 1”-a set of automatic judgments and assumptions that are implicitly learned-often in new situations or in stressful situations our “page 1” appears. One common example that I personally experienced was when I was a child driving through a black neighborhood with my parents and being told to lock the car doors. I learned early on that I should fear black people. It took many years of consciously deciding to build new experiences to be able to create a new set of reactions-to go from fear to engagement. A major step in uncovering our biases is being willing to honestly and deeply examine our assumptions and then being willing to challenge their validity. To do so takes an open mind, a willingness to experiment with new behaviors and to be brave in new circumstances. Our discussion of the hidden nature of biases in the education session had an almost immediate impact.

One of the women from our education group was redecorating her townhouse and was in the process of hiring a painter. Right after one of our sessions, she had an interview that would have turned out entirely differently had it been held a week earlier.

A week before, she might not have even opened the door to the prospective painter she saw on the other side of the peephole. But she had just been talking about examining her biases, and she realized that her instant aversion to the man’s multiple facial and ear piercings had all the symptoms of bias. Her normal “page 1” response would have been to judge the man as unprofessional and incompetent based on his appearance alone and upon seeing him at the door would have made up some excuse about changing her mind and not going ahead with the project. Instead she mustered up her courage, fixed a business-like smile on her face, opened the door, and invited the young man in to review his qualifications and approach.

She encountered surprise after surprise. Against all her expectations, she found the young man to be polite, articulate, and highly professional. His resume, portfolio of photographs of previous jobs, and list of references were head and shoulders above anything she had seen from any of the other painters she had interviewed. So she confronted her biases and gave him the job.

To make the story short, he did a fantastic job, and the woman has been actively recommending him to all of her friends and acquaintances-not only will they get an exceptionally professional job, but an opportunity to examine their biases as well. By not following her normal responses, she opened up a world of possibilities and also achieved the quality she desired in a job well done. From this experience she realized the many ways in which her biases were getting in the way.

Because she saw the impact of making this change in her personal life, she decided to challenge her biases at work too. She began to mentor some of the younger employees in the company whom she had previously dismissed. This experience reinforced her new learnings to see past an individual’s external appearance and truly seek out what they had to offer. In the end, she brought her skills and perspectives to the younger employees in the company and they gained from her wisdom and experience as well. She was also surprised to discover that she learned new ways of seeing things and tackling problems, and was able to be far more effective in her own role by interacting with many of her young mentees. By taking one small step-opening her mind, her front door, and her office door-she was able to open up a whole new world of experience for herself and to help her organization be more successful also.


We all carry prejudices and biases. The question is how do we let those quick judgments stop us from really seeing what people bring and who they truly are. Some actions that help us to overcome our biases and immediate stereotypes:

  • Recognize and fully own your biases-the more we hide from them the more they rule our lives. Step one is to recognize that they are there and to own them.
  • Be open-minded: challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone. Be willing to lean into your discomfort and learn more about the other person.
  • Be willing to engage: the only way to break down stereotypes is to get more data on someone so that you see the many facets of who they are, not the one dimension that our stereotypes bring.
  • Be curious about the other person: ask questions, seek to understand, and-most importantly-try to learn about their world and experiences.
  • Accept the other’s frame of reference as true for her or him: other people see and experience the world differently. Whether you agree or not, it is important to learn why they are the way they are.
  • Find connecting points: as human beings we all have the same needs-to be loved and to have connection and meaning. We all experience sadness and joy. However, we each may experience these things quite differently. Find the areas of commonality and connection if you want to get beneath appearances and surface assumptions.

Judith H. Katz, Ed.D, is executive vice president of The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group. Judith specializes in integrating culture change initiatives into business strategies of organizations. She is a member of the Diversity Collegium, a think tank of renowned diversity professionals in the United States, and the author of the landmark book, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training (University of Oklahoma Press, 1978, 2003). She is coauthor, with Frederick A. Miller, of The Inclusion Breakthrough: Unleashing the Real Power of Diversity (Berrett-Koehler, 2002).