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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 14 * July 19, 1999

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Stereo Thinking

inst public employees is that they can be indifferent and robotic in meeting and responding to the needs of members of the public.

The criticism has led to a stereotype of a bureaucrat as one who focuses on the forms of public service – literally, when it comes to the paperwork which plagues us all – rather than the substance of seeing the work make a difference in the lives of others.

The sad thing about stereotypes is that they are almost always wrong and unfair when applied to any individual.

They distort and create a false image. If they are not challenged and if stereotyping is not actively discouraged, the results can be terribly unjust.

Ask any historian of human rights or civil rights around the world, as well as in America’s past.

It is the responsibility of every public agency leader to be alert to behavior or attitudes that distort the truth and label persons unfairly. Interrupting this type of behavior begins with being conscious of it in the first place. Its interruption is encouraged when our elected and appointed officials act as responsible role models and are sensitive to their effects on the behavior and attitudes of others.

The HR Doctor suggests that agency heads conduct their meetings and public appearances – even meetings with only one person in the room with the door closed – as though there were 100 others listening inside and outside the room.

The reality is, when it comes to public official’s behavior, that is exactly the situation.

The results of our personal interaction with others and the attitudes we reflect, especially if they involve perceptions of disrespectful or insulting behavior, can stay with us for years and echo in the minds of others.

One of the HR Doctor’s trade secrets is to urge everyone to focus on the problem, not the person, when we are conducting our agency’s business. One of a supervisor’s biggest mistakes is to personalize a difficult circumstance and search for a scapegoat. This detracts from a more effective focus on what’s wrong and what we can do to fix it. A focus on the personal often can link to a focus on the stereotype with the result that a problem is made worse, instead of made better.

The word “stereo” refers to an enhanced experience or vision resulting from seeing things or hearing things from more than one dimension. For example, the multiple channels of a home stereo system or the depth of field which binoculars offer us. However, when the word stereo is connected to the word “type,” our vision is not enhanced. It is distorted.

The challenge for us in public administration is to use “stereo thinking” when we address problems. Our challenge is to look for ways to improve our perception and the depth of our vision. This cannot be accomplished when “stereo thinking” gives way to thinking in stereotypes.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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