Cracking the Code: Unmasking Covert Stereotyping

Have you ever left a meeting or reflect on a conversation and feel like, something robbed off on you negatively, but you cannot put a finger to it?  Have you felt like you truly work well with someone but sometimes, there is something that doesn’t quite sit well?  Have you ever felt like someone is saying all the right things and nodding at you but exhude a different aura?

Overt and covert stereotyping are two distinct manifestations of biased thinking and preconceived notions about individuals and groups based on their perceived characteristics.  As I discussed in my book Behind Excuses: Underperformance Explained (get a copy below), stereotyping is a way for us to manage human complexities.  

Overt stereotyping refers to explicit and openly expressed stereotypes that are easily identifiable. It involves making sweeping generalizations about a particular group based on their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other characteristics. Often observed through discriminatory comments, offensive jokes, derogatory language, or outright discrimination. It is evident and direct, leaving little room for interpretation.

On the other hand, covert stereotyping is more subtle and indirect. It involves unconscious or implicit biases that influence one’s attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors towards others without conscious awareness. The key phare here is “without conscious awareness” – meaning it happens and you don’t even know or realized that it has happened.  Covert stereotypes operate at a subconscious level, making them challenging to detect and confront. They may manifest through microaggressions, subtle biases in decision-making, or even through well-intentioned actions that inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes.  This form of stereotyping breeds discrimination and because it is “invisible” with no loud voice, it tends to cause the most problems in organizations and elsewhere.   This is at the center of why most DEI programs struggle and throttle.  

Both overt and covert stereotyping can be harmful, perpetuating unfair judgments, discrimination, and inequality. While overt stereotyping is more obvious and easily challenged, covert stereotyping requires greater self-awareness and effort to identify and address. It is essential to recognize and challenge both forms of stereotyping to create inclusive and equitable environments that celebrate diversity and promote understanding among individuals and groups.  

Organizational teams struggle a lot with covert stereotyping because it is not obvious. By operating beneath the surface, it manifests as unconscious biases that affect how team members perceive and interact with one another. These subtle biases can lead to uneven distribution of responsibilities, diminished trust, and limited collaboration.

Individuals subjected to covert stereotyping may feel undervalued and marginalized, inhibiting their full participation and potential contribution to the team. Over time, this hampers team dynamics, stifles creativity, and hinders innovation, hindering the team’s ability to reach its full potential and achieve collective success.

If your DEI program seems to be heading no where, it may be time today deeper. If your teams are still struggling intervention after intervention, it is time to dig deeper. I can help your team deal with endemic team challenges, schedule a call below.