A good portion of my research in social psychology concerns an effect called “stereotype threat,” in which the performance of a task is hindered by a situation in which a person could be viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype. When a high-performing African American student takes a standardized test, for example, the knowledge that African Americans are negatively stereotyped regarding intellectual capability can produce in that student an anxiety that actually causes him or her to underperform.
This anxiety over confirming a negative stereotype is not limited to race, but can manifest in all manner of ways. I’ve studied the effect in education – where it can cause the most intelligent women to struggle in STEM fields (because they’ve heard that women are worse than men at math) or the most competent first-generation students to flounder at college (because they’ve been told college isn’t for them) – but it can come up in many other places as well. For any negative stereotype about how a person or group performs a task, there is a chance that the specter of confirming that stereotype will adversely influence performance.
Without a doubt, instances of stereotype threat can come up in the workplace. One recent study observed the effect in tests of male social sensitivity, operating on the idea that men are thought not to be as compassionate or understanding as women in their interactions with others. This could influence how male supervisors undertake employee reviews or how male colleagues give informal feedback. Another recent study examined the effect in older employees who are presented with the claim that older staff do not perform technology-related assignments as well as their younger counterparts.
Because stereotype threat arises in situations where tasks highlight social identities with poor performance, one method that has been shown to reduce the effect is to reframe a task in a way that does not call to mind a relevant stereotype. Similarly, if a task is presented in a way that deemphasizes the threatened social identity, the effect on performance is negated.
In our second example above, then, presenting a task to a mature worker not as a technology- related project but instead simply a work project could curb the effects of stereotype threat. Alternatively, reminding the person taking on the project that he or she is an experienced IT staff member with up-to-date skills and certifications – in lieu of an older employee – would allow him or her to shed an identity problematic in this situation for an identity benefitting him or her.
There are other ways to negate stereotype threat as well, such as spending time with role models who defy stereotypes, or affirming one’s own capabilities before tackling a task. Managers or supervisors can also limit the effect of the phenomenon by emphasizing high standards for all employees, establishing trust through honest affirmations of work, valuing workers’ opinions and soliciting them often, and making an effort to understand their unique lives and struggles.
Understanding and combatting stereotype threat is an important part of leveling the playing field in school, at work, and in all walks of life. There is a large and growing body of work examining the issue, and I’ve only just shown you the tip of the iceberg here. If you’d like to know more, view this talk I gave on Stereotype Threat: How it affects us and what we can do about it at Staff Appreciation Week in 2014, or check out from the library a copy of my book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. Or if you see me on campus, just ask!