James DeKoven
Writer & Content Strategist

Blog of marketing and branding ideas

Opinions, ideas and ramblings

Judge the Idea, Not the Job Title

If you don’t live in the Golden State, you might not be aware of the Northern California-Southern California rivalry. Thing is, only folks from up North ever bring up the topic.

I first experienced this when I arrived at U.C Santa Barbara for college. I scratched my then-full head of hair when students from Northern California would say things like, “Oh, you’re from L.A. People down there only care about money and fame. They’re pretentious. Everyone works in Hollywood.”

Huh?

Man, even the surfers had attitude. “We’re more hardcore. We have to deal with the cold water, big waves and sharks. Southern Cal has nothing like Mavericks, Steamer’s Lane, Ocean Beach, Ghost Trees or Ano Nuevo.”

Years later when I moved to the Bay Area, I discovered that people in Mill Valley, Los Gatos, Atherton, Palo Alto, Piedmont, Lafayette, Ross, Belvedere, Hillsborough, Los Altos Hills, Menlo Park, Pacific Heights, The Mission, The Marina, Cow Hollow, Russian Hill, Nob Hill and Noe Valley don’t get Botox, spray tans, or obsess over fashion or their bodies. And they surely don’t care about something superficial like salaries or stock options.

Hypocrisy aside, the North-South spat is a harmless, often entertaining rivalry. Dodgers vs. Giants, Haight-Ashbury vs. Laurel Canyon, Fog vs. Sunshine, which region has better Mexican food.

But the core mentality that drives the intra-state debate is also responsible for more sinister forms of prejudice: Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and ageism. Labels and categories have serious societal consequences.

Consider our nation’s messy political situation. Barely anything gets done. Besides valid ideological differences and layers of bureaucracy, the system is inefficient because politicians react to the category instead of the idea.

Imagine how much they could accomplish if there were no political parties. No Democrats, no Republicans. Senators and Congress people wouldn’t color their judgment of colleagues through a “liberal” or “conservative” lens. Instead, they would debate issues and legislation on the merit of the ideas, not the labels attached to those espousing them. Citizens would be more apt to vote that way, too.

This could happen if people listened to each other. I mean really listened.

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Categories don’t only prevent the enactment of reasonable tax and healthcare policies. The same mindset comes into play at work. The category – in this case our job titles – can shape how we perceive and react.

We’ve all dealt with some type of job title discrimination: Sales dismisses great sales ideas from marketing. Marketing dismisses wonderful marketing ideas from engineering. VPs dismiss smart business ideas from HR. Writers dismiss effective copy ideas from UX people.

Companies know this happens, so they foster collaboration with open floor plans and team-building exercises. Stuff that bonds people. But they still need to listen to each other.

There are plenty of articles on the web to help improve your listening skills. For what it's worth, I try to be aware that anyone has the potential for a brilliant idea. In fact, they'll often have a better idea, or improve on my original.

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Labels are tough to ignore. They almost always create our initial cognitive framework about a person.

If you're about to go on a blind date with an “Environmentalist”, “Guitar player in a speed metal band”, “Harvard Business School alum”, “New York cop” or “Pakistani journalist”, it will be nearly impossible to not immediately ascribe personality traits, opinions, and a lifestyle to each one. I did that in the 82 seconds it took to type them out (“What could a New York cop know about Tolstoy anyway?”)

This happens more than we realize, which is another reason why no one is as objective or logical as they believe. We’re prone to heed the same advice from a therapist (“You may want to consider a career change”) that we just disregarded from a sibling (“You may want to consider a career change”).

According to evolutionary psychology, our brains create categories so information is easier to process and assess. Categories enable our innate need for safety. That type of animal could kill me, that kind of person could protect me.

But biology is not destiny. Unlike your chocolate Labrador or Ragamuffin cat, we have a special ability to think about our thoughts. We can learn to overcome the survival mechanisms designed by evolution.

How? It would probably be illegal, or just plain weird, to blindfold everyone in the conference room and use voice scramblers in a witness-protection-program-TV show kind of way.

Start by being a better listener. Focus on the words rather than person forming them. You might get some great ideas that you would otherwise ignore. As for our representatives in Washington, D.C, one can only hope.