Demeaning stereotypes persist in our workplaces. Employees may feel threatened or judged by their bosses or coworkers based on the groups they are part of (e.g., ethnicity, gender, bodyweight, or even cancer survivors). Many employees justifiably feel threatened by these stereotypes, and this could negatively affect their performance. A new article (Kalokerinos, von Hippel, & Zacher, 2014) discusses the implications of stereotype threat on the workplace.
EXAMINING STEREOTYPE THREAT
Stereotype threats can either be acute or chronic. Acute threat occurs when people are reminded of a negative stereotype just before attempting the type of task to which the stereotype refers. Laboratory research shows that acute threats, which may be spoken or visual in nature, results in participants performing worse than those who didn’t get the stereotype reminder. For example, in one study cited, women were asked their gender prior to taking a math test, and then did worse than those who were not asked their gender prior to the test.
Chronic stereotype threat may be felt if there are daily visual reminders that persist over time, such as very small numbers of women and minorities in management or board meetings. For example, there is a stereotype that says older employees do not perform as well as their younger counterparts, which numerous studies have shown to be false. This may influence older employees to resign or retire.
In a large U.S. and Australian study, employees over age 50 reporting chronic age stereotype threat also reported less job satisfaction, less organizational commitment and more intent to leave their companies. Similarly, women employed in the legal field who experienced chronic gender stereotype threat reported less satisfaction and commitment and greater turnover intentions.
PROFESSIONAL IDENTITIES CAN CAUSE INDIVIDUAL CONFLICT
Women experiencing gender stereotype threat may cope with the threat by separating their work identity and their female identity, which causes internal conflict. This conflict results in lowered career aspirations and less motivation to succeed as the psychological cost gets too high.
Women’s leadership aspirations are particularly at risk. Leadership research showed that stereotype threat, combined with being the only woman present, caused female employees to have less belief in their own leadership ability and lower performance. In short, female employees may “psych themselves out.”
HOW ORGANIZATIONS CAN COMBAT STEREOTYPE THREAT
How can organizations combat the negative effects of stereotype threat? More research is needed in order to answer this question thoroughly. But if an organization has a broad diversity of age, gender, and ethnicity amongst its employees, the threat of stereotyping is visually interrupted.
In addition, strong psychological contracts with employees should reduce their perceptions of stereotypes in their workplace. Written or spoken self-affirmation has also been shown to be effective against stereotype threat in students and women, on math and other tests of their abilities.
Similar self-affirmation could be incorporated into workplace management training and other types of development programs. Self-awareness of stereotype threat can enlighten employees so that they no longer react to it. After all, knowledge is power.
Kalokerinos, E. K., von Hippel, C., & Zacher, H. (2014). Is Stereotype Threat a Useful Construct for Organizational Psychology Research and Practice? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(3), 381-402.