It’s all around us, the idea that we are a divided country. Articles and books offer solutions for what we as a country need to do to close racial, gender and any other divisions based on demographics. But all those solutions go nowhere if we’re not looking at ourselves and taking responsibility for our actions.

We all seem to be in a hurry to make decisions, to get work done, and to make snap judgments. One of my clients said, “I don’t have time to get to know my employees or consider diversity. It’s just easy to hire people from the best schools, and to bring in people who I’m most comfortable with.”

Whether we want to hire the best people or close demographic divisions, we need to stop practicing lazy thinking that leads to stereotyping, labeling people with generalizations and missing people with whom we can connect in our workplaces and in our communities.

It’s so easy to be mentally lazy and stereotype and label people we don’t know well. We listen to what other people tell us and default to stereotypes. This takes the work out of having to interact in meaningful ways or experience discomfort with people who are different. We don’t have to make decisions for ourselves or take the time to understand other people.

But before you take the easy way out and get stuck in narrow mindedness, read on.

Think before you put a label on another person based on generalizations and stereotypes. Biases and assumptions lead to stereotyping and excluding people from fully contributing to an organization. Labeling also stops us from having new experiences, learning and growing in new ways.

Think about a time when you were labeled. It was easy to get labeled, but how easy was it to change that label? Not very. There is a tendency to not want to be labeled personally while labeling other people.

It’s not up to an amorphous “them” to take action and bring people together who are different. It’s up to each of us as individuals to take tiny steps that can create big results.

Let go of the label

If a co-worker tells you that a new employee is arrogant, or a know-it-all, there is a tendency to assume that’s the truth, and you may find yourself looking for signs that the person fits the label. Once we label others, we look for ways to confirm that label and the bias we have. I’ve done that in the past when I was in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

A fellow employee, Terrance, who I had developed a rapport with, told me that a new employee, Akil, was just “out for themselves,” and never helped anyone else.

I believed that, and stayed away from that employee, until the time I was asked to write a last-minute report. My manager said she needed it by the next day. I had concert tickets and people were counting on me to show up.

First, I asked the colleague who I “thought” would help me, the one who told me how awful the new employee was. Terrance told me he was late for his Crossfit session and that he knew I would figure it out.

Akil, (labeled only out for himself) saw me biting my nails and sensed that I was about to pull my hair out from stress and frustration. He approached me and asked if I needed help. When I told him about the report and the conference he said, “I’ve done those kind of reports before. Let me work with you and we can get it done in an hour.”

Not only did we finish in time for me to go the concert, I learned a new skill and a lesson about listening to labels. I also discovered later that Terrance labeled Akil because he was on the he was from a different culture and generation. Had I been less lazy, I would have questioned Terrance’s reasons for the label.

Your turn

Think of someone that you labeled based on another person’s comment. How did you treat that person because of that label? What did you miss about that person? What opportunity did you lose? You may never know.

When you find yourself labeling someone, instead, become curious and talk to him or her. Don’t pre-judge them based on the word of someone else.

We tend to give more weight to the opinions and judgments of people who are most like us or who we know and like. Unless we become aware of this, we default to old ways of thinking. It’s time to stop!

Take the time to get to know the whole person before you label him or her based on looks, accent, size, skin color, etc. When we take that time, we take responsibility for closing bridging divides and we set an example for other people to do the same. Always take the time to ask “why” when you hear a negative comment about another person especially if they are different than the “accuser.”