Preface:  Workplace Undercover will be a recurring segment of this blog, featuring a workplace scenario and a response by a guest consultant.  The scenario below was written by Eillen Bui, our research associate.  Mary Harlan of Harlan Consulting is guest consultant for this scenario.

The scenario: Thomas just began working at XYZ Corporation and still had not met everyone who worked there.  Today he decided to eat in the cafeteria instead of bringing his own lunch and sitting alone in his office.  He spotted Michelle, someone that he had spoken to briefly the other day and decided to go over to say hi.  Michelle was sitting with a group of her friends and they seemed to be in a deep conversation. As soon as he got near though, the group at the table suddenly became quiet and no one would even look up at him.

Thomas felt uncomfortable so he passed by the table without even acknowledging Michelle. At first he felt saddened by the fact that his new coworkers were being unfriendly to him but then he became angry.  “Why are all Asian girls so stuck up and rude?” he thought.

Thomas is “being in the answer.” How could he move toward “being in the question?” Are there any other circumstances that could have been a factor for Michelle and her friends to stop in the middle of their conversation as Thomas approached?  What could Thomas do about his impulse toward automatic stereotyping?

Today’s Response by Guest Consultant Mary Harlan of Harlan Consulting.

Thomas is in a new situation.  Often in unfamiliar circumstances, even when we have a positive outlook, we seek confirmation that all is well.  Like Thomas, we may be ready to take the initiative:  “Okay, I had a pleasant exchange with Michelle yesterday.  I’ll initiate a follow up. I’m sure it’ll go well and she’ll be responsive to me and so will her friends.”  This is where assumptions sneak into our thinking.

What does “going well” looks like?  To Thomas, it may seem as though Michelle will look up from her conversation, smile, and invite him to join her and her friends at the table.  And, there’s more! It may also look like the others at the table will easily include him in the conversation, with lots of eye contact and generous smiles.  This is loaded with assumptions.

Here are more assumptions: (a) the time is right for me to chat so the time is right for Michelle and her friends, (b) casual and spontaneous inclusion at a table is easy for me so it’s easy for Michelle and her friends, and (c) if Michelle doesn’t act the way I’m expecting her to – whoa!  It must mean she doesn’t like me, her friends are stuck up and rude, and, hmmm, as matter of fact, all Asian girls are stuck up and rude!

To be more effective in this situation, Thomas must rewind the tape and move from his certainty that he knows all about Michelle and her friends to a more useful perspective.  As he rewinds the tape, he needs to remember that when he was feeling good about Michelle, he saw her as an individual.  When his feelings changed as he walked past the table, the negative stereotypes about Asian females kicked in and he used the stereotype to justify his feelings.

Here’s what we would advise him:  First acknowledge what’s working.  Kudos to you, Thomas, for taking on a new job at a new company and wanting to make new friends.  Reconnecting to your healthy curiosity and positive attitude will open you to more possibilities about what’s happening with Michelle and her friends.

Next turn the negative stereotyping off!  Anytime you hear “ALL (that group) are….” you know you’re listening to a stereotype.  When you accept the negative stereotype, you close the door to options. The negative stereotype was silent when you first met Michelle.  You were free to be curious about her and open to a positive interaction.

Get curious again about what’s happening with Michelle and her friends.    Ask yourself, “what if” until you loosen the hold your assumptions have on you.  What if Michelle didn’t recognize you?  (After all, you’ve only had a brief conversation.) What if the group got quiet because one of them just asked a perplexing question?  What if the group got quiet because they really were in a deep conversation (as you observed) about a serious problem and they were just on the brink finding a solution?  What if the group conversation hadn’t changed its pace at all – it had been slow paced, low volume, and filled with silent pauses from the very beginning?  There’s a lot you don’t know here, Thomas!

Asking ‘what if’ allows you to explore and discover. What if you initiate a conversation with Michelle?  Tell her that you’d like to meet her for lunch in the cafeteria.  You can even say that you saw her in the cafeteria but chose not to interrupt her and her friends.  What if this time you listen to what she says rather than what you think?  It’ll probably be more fun!


Mary Harlan, President of Harlan Consulting, is a consultant and coach, specializing in change management, cultural competence, diversity, leadership, and teams.  For more information, see  Mary is also a practitioner with Leading Consciously.


Filed under: bridging differencesstrength-basedtesting assumptions

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