How to overcome assumptions that block your people power

By Sam Allman


This is a column about mutual benefit, about how to get more out of life through interdependent interaction and connection with others. It’s the relationships in our lives that matter. Whether we have many or a select few, relationships add depth and meaning to our lives. People with meaningful relationships live longer and have a better quality of life. Learning to be effective with people is a critical life skill.

Prehistorically and up to the recent past, it was certainly easier to master relationship skills, because people were living in communities that were mostly homogeneous: same culture, same race, same language, same values, etc. All one had to do was to treat people like one wanted to be treated. Basically, this was the origin of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

However, our world has changed—according to Thomas Friedman, the earth has flattened. The communities in which we live are no longer isolated. Though many of us want to stay in our cocoons in isolation, globalization prevents it. In terms of commerce, the world is now a level playing field, where all competitors have an equal opportunity. Historical and geographical divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the global market. Inevitably, the rapid pace of change will continue. If we ignore it or put our heads in the sand, we will be left behind. 

I have spent my life in the floorcovering business. I remember attending markets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta. In the early days, almost all of the people I met at those markets were like me: white Anglo males who spoke American English. Rarely did I see women, people of color or people of other cultures. My people skills were not stretched because all I had to do was treat people the way I wanted to be treated. After all, I had read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s a book everyone should read. However, in this flat world, it falls short. 

Today’s reality is more complex. All around me I discover diversity. During my walk down the aisles of Surfaces and Coverings this past year, I saw endless examples of globalization: foreign companies, foreign languages, foreign people and foreign products.

Even ignoring the rest of the world, why worry about globalization in America? Because America is no longer a melting pot. People no longer assimilate into the American culture. They bring their cultures with them. America is now more like a tossed salad. Even if you are not in a minority group, there are more people out there who are different from you than are similar. Not only must we interact with people from different races and ethnic groups, we have to connect with people of different genders, age cohorts, sexual orientations and values. These differences require each of us to raise the level of our game. The same strategies and tactics are not effective with everyone. We need additional tools. 

Imagine for a second that you were recently hired to manage a Washington, D.C. hotel where the employees speak 36 different languages or a hotel in Massachusetts that has 140 employees who represent at least 40 countries of origin. How effective do you think you would be if you treated them based on your values, your perspectives, your insights or how you want to be treated? You may not manage a hotel with employees from 40 different countries, but if you manage a flooring business, the odds are you have installers, customers or employees who speak another language or who have grown up in a different culture. 

My wife and I exercise almost every day at the YMCA in Acworth, Georgia. To reward ourselves for a vigorous aerobic workout, we love to sit for 20 minutes in the sauna. Since we work out at the same time every day, we meet the same people in the sauna. We visit, talk about current events and sports, tell personal stories and make connections. Besides those who are like me: old, white, male and Anglo, there are African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics and people from Belarus, Spain, Nigeria, Namibia, China and Japan. Needless to say, we always have interesting discussions. We have all become friends. That association would have never happened 20 years ago in Acworth, Georgia. 

If you are in sales, the same issues apply. Instinctively, we sell to others the way we like to be sold or like to buy. In general, women clearly shop and buy differently from men. My experience internationally has shown that different cultures and ethnic groups cannot be categorized into one or two buying styles. Great salespeople have learned to adjust their selling style to match the buying style of their customers. They are constantly finessing what they do in response to the actions of the customer. Clueless salespeople are not aware of how their actions affect the customer. That lack of awareness allows them to justify why the customer walked. However, the real reason the sale was lost was lack of awareness and lack of flexibility in selling method.

That same flexibility is required in connecting and building relationships with people. You know that it’s easy to connect to people who are like you. The real measure of your people power is your ability to create friendships and connections with people who are completely different. In this global world, people power with everyone and anyone is a skill that will leverage your influence and, through synergy, optimize your results. To be successful in a diverse and multicultural world, you must evolve from a single dimensional player into a multi-dimensional or multicultural player. To do that you must be aware of the fatal assumptions that will limit your success. And you know what happens when you assume…. 

Fatal assumption: Most people are alike. I am a father of ten children. As a parent, I learned fairly early that although they had the same parents, lived in the same home, shared the same values, attended the same church and spoke the same language, they were each different and unique. Once in frustration I said to my daughter, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” I found that’s one of the worst things you can ever say to a child. My daughter has spent her life proving that she is nothing like her brother. Needless to say, I have at least ten parenting styles. What happens when you assume that everyone is pretty much alike? You create tension and discomfort for some. Feeling uncomfortable, they will pull away, withdraw and will never make the connection. Though we all want to fit in, we need to also feel unique. All individuals are, in some respects, like no other individuals.

Fatal assumption: My culture is the best. The belief that one’s own culture is inherently superior to other cultures is called ethnocentrism, and it’s a natural tendency for many people. It’s the arrogance that created the “Ugly American” and Hitler’s premise of Aryan supremacy. This mindset stems from our reliance on the self-reference criteria by which we measure the goodness or badness of others exclusively according to our own natural perspectives. That kind of thinking is the foundation of close-mindedness, a self-defeating behavior. We become clueless by closing our minds and eyes to other perspectives and alternatives. We cease learning because we think we know it all. According to a study at Cornell University, knowing it all is an absolute sign of incompetence.

Fatal assumption: People are the same within a group. We are stereotyping machines. The ability to distinguish friend from foe helped early humans survive, and the ability to quickly and automatically categorize people is a fundamental quality of the human mind. Categories give order to life, and every day we group other people into categories based on social and other characteristics. Stereotypical thinking provides meaning and organizes perceptions, inferences and judgments. We can’t help it. But we must be aware that we do it. Stereotyping is helpful, but also leads us to incorrect assumptions: all white men can’t jump; all Muslims are terrorists; all young black men are members of a gang; all Americans are obese. Because of the complexity of culture, we should never use stereotypes to infer an individual’s personal cultural orientation solely based on the individual’s group membership. Oversimplified preconceptions and generalizations about members of social groups or cultures create faulty perceptions. 

Fatal assumption: I am not prejudiced; I have no bias. Scientific research has demonstrated that biases thought to be absent or extinguished remain as “mental residue” in most of us. Studies show a person can be consciously committed to equality and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes. These biases shape our likes and dislikes, as well as our judgments about people’s character, abilities and potential. Hidden biases can reveal themselves in action, especially when a person’s effort to control behavior consciously is challenged by stress, distraction, relaxation or competition. By becoming aware of your biases, you’ll gain more conscious control of your behavior and interact more effectively with others.

Fatal assumption: A single story tells all. No one can really be defined by a single story. Our lives are complex and messy. I remember judging or stereotyping divorced people; then I became one. That was an “aha” moment. I no longer do that. A divorce is an event. It may or not be a defining moment. Our lives are a collection of defining moments that sculpt us. Have you been judged based on one stupid thing you did? How did that make you feel? Because we need consistency, we tend to judge others based on first impressions and perpetuate that judgment even when there is evidence to the contrary. Our perceptions are rarely accurate based on a single experience with another. 

Fatal assumption: Conflict and disagreement are bad. Actually, conflict and disagreement can be good. Conflict can open our minds to new alternatives, new perspectives and better options. When well managed, conflict or abrasiveness can generate creativity and original thinking. Disagreements can magically produce ideas that can lead to better results. But the participants can’t lose trust with each other. They must keep valuing and including each other in the dialogue. They must remain open and not defensive. I call it the power of conflict and diversity. I believe America became great because of its diversity. It just has to be managed well. We need to celebrate our diversity.


Your ability to connect and build relationships with people who are significantly different from you will add leverage to your people power. Here are some suggestions that will increase those abilities: 

Increase your contact with persons of other cultures and increase your awareness of contrast between your culture and theirs. 

Question your assumptions and first impressions of others. Ask yourself, “Could I be wrong?” 

Become a critical thinker. Open your mind, watch and listen. 

Increase your level of respect for different heritages by learning about them. Put yourself in their shoes. 

Become aware of your hidden biases. You can’t change unless you are aware that you need to. 

Seek first to understand others. That will help you learn how to treat them. It’s the modern version of the golden rule: “Do unto others as they would be done unto.”  

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus 

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