Let’s face it, most of us are exposed to a lot of information on a daily basis. We crave mental shortcuts hoping to reach conclusions quickly, even if we have to jump to get to them.
Most minds are not too fond of holding many loose ends in tandem. When we want to put matters to rest and give them no further critical thought, we may use generalizations so we can move on.
No harm in that.
Or is there?
When it comes to certain types of generalizations, namely hasty and sweeping generalizations, harm can—and often does follow. Sweeping generalizations are considered cognitive distortions according to cognitive psychology, and logical fallacies by experts in the science of logic and debate.
According to the book, Logically Fallacious, the author defines a sweeping generalization as:
applying a general rule to a specific instance without proper evidence
and a hasty generalization as: applying a specific rule to a general situation without proper evidence.
We have all done these things. See, I just made a hasty generalization in that sentence!
All kidding aside, this type of generalizing is bad for us because it obfuscates us from getting to the truth of a matter in order to take the necessary actions to remedy it. If we make a statement such as, “None of the people in Production like to work, that’s why everything is on backorder,” we may never find out that Production received their materials three weeks late because Purchasing was short staffed.
Another reason to stay away from sweeping and hasty generalizations is that we usually tend to believe them once enough people say them, thereby participating in the collective misinformation of the masses. While many people believe the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” there are no shortages of cases where consumers are overcharged for goods and services. Prices are established according to what people are willing to pay, and are not always indicative of the quality of a product. Does a higher interest rate from a lender mean that a borrower is somehow getting loaned better quality money?
Finally, generalizations of these types are bad for the psyche because they often come supercharged with unnecessary negativity that sends moods soaring south. They are bad for you, bad for your boss, bad for your employees, and bad for your co-workers. Generalizations go viral, and infect the thinking of those who hear them and believe them.
Following are four common generalizations that are likely to prevent you from getting to the heart of workplace conflicts, and efficiently resolving them:
1. “There’s no communication.”
In my personal experience I find that workplaces suffer more from over-communication than under-communication. Over-communication makes prioritization more challenging as we have the tendency to equate urgency with frequency.
Rather than saying there’s no communication, it’s better to first investigate how something currently gets communicated, and then determine if the current means of communication is reasonable. For example, if the only mention of the upcoming Holiday Party was in the company newsletter and you didn’t know about it, the issue isn’t that there’s no communication, but that not everyone reads the newsletter. Tackling the solution from this vantage point is much more effective—and you’ll be much less pissed when you learn that they at least tried.
In many cases the only thing that needs to be communicated more is the method by which things are communicated. The senders and receivers of the communication simply need to align to discover the best, reasonable method that will work for both parties.
2. “They don’t care about…”
Demonization is as old as humanity itself, and our language conveniently provides us with a collective pronoun (i.e. they) to make this destructive way of talking that much easier. Who are they—and what are the specific things they allegedly don’t care about?
The problem with this, and other generalizations about the workplace is that the information is vague and there is no clear way to measure improvement. This sets up the expectation that it must be made obvious to all employees that all things are cared about at all times, and until everyone in the company has this perception the problem will naturally be considered unresolved.
As long as there remains one specific person in management who doesn’t care about one specific thing, the problem “they don’t care about…” will still be echoed throughout the workplace. Whatever improvement one could have observed and enjoyed will now be obscured because of the generalization.
The solution: Try substituting “they” for an individual’s name. See if you still have the same impression.
3. There’s too much drama.
The use of the word drama often refers to the idea that someone is upset about something, and choses to voice their grievance. When this everyday human behavior gets the overly broad drama label slapped on it—and is perceived as such, every time someone gets upset about something we will see this as evidence of even more drama.
The reality is that the greater the number of people who gather together in a given place increases the odds that at least one person in that place will be upset about something for some reason. Since the workplace is filled with everyday people, the drama conflict never gets resolved as we never seem to get away from what we perceive to be drama.
One way to achieve fewer unhappy employees in the workplace is to create a structure where employees feel they have a voice, legitimate concerns get addressed and followed up on, and thoughtful responses are provided in exchange for feedback. Happster, a Workplace Happiness app may help your company facilitate this type of environment.
4. Everyone is always so negative.
All of the time.
(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
The strong bias created from this sweeping generalization blinds us from recognizing those who are acting positively, or even neutrally.
Now say the words, “Everyone is always so negative,” and notice how negative you feel now that you’ve said them. This negativity you brought on by saying this negative sentence will now color everything you see. Neutral interactions and even some positive ones will be perceived as negative interactions once this mindset is activated.
Sorry to have done this to you. Now I need to snap you out of it. Just click your heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like work!”
All that you really need to do is make a note of the specific people who are contributing to a negative atmosphere, and avoid making a sweeping generalization beyond them. Now you only have a few negative people to deal with. That’s a lot less on your plate than everyone.
The generalizations discussed here move us further away from resolving a workplace conflict because they usually lead to an inaccurate assessment of the issue at hand. This too often leads to implementing complex strategies that simply don’t work because they were based on faulty or missing data.
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