Team Racial Makeup Can Influence the Evaluation of Leaders

Evaluate Leaders
Topic(s): assessment, diversity, fairness, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2015)
Article: The Role of Proximal Social Contexts: Assessing Stigma-by-Association Effects on Leader Appraisals
Authors: M. Hernandez, D.R. Avery, S. Tonidandel, M.R. Hebl, A.N. Smith, P.F. McKay
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Leader evaluation is becoming an increasingly important workplace topic. In fact, some research suggests that racial disparities within the US workforce have increased over the last decade, as some minority groups are greatly underrepresented in positions of management. There may be a number of reasons for this, but new research (Hernandez et al., 2015) suggests that one reason could be biased appraisals of leaders, meaning evaluations of their performance, value, and competence. Specifically, ratings of leader effectiveness can be influenced based on the type of people on the leader’s team.


The authors conducted a series of studies. The first revealed that when there were more African-American employees in a group, the leaders of these groups received lower appraisal ratings from observers. The subsequent studies confirmed that these social contexts indeed have a significant effect on observer judgments of group leaders’ value and competence. When the group composition was primarily made up of African-American employees, lower appraisal ratings were recorded on leader competence, performance, and value

Interestingly, however, this bias was not found when the group was made up of entirely African-American employees, where appraisals were then similar to those of leaders of groups without African-Americans. Overall then, the level of observer appraisal ratings followed a U-shaped pattern when considering the total amount of African-American employees within a work group. Highest appraisal scores occurred when the group was entirely African-American or entirely not African-American.

The study also showed that this situation could be positively influenced by the presence of internal and external motivators to control personal bias. Internal motivators refer to a personal level of commitment to controlling bias, and external motivators refer to outside influences that encourage adherence to fairer standards of appraisal. The results from the research highlight the important role of external motivators in reducing the impact of prejudice during leader evaluation. This was because external motivation could lower prejudice whether or not the individual had high or low internal motivation to control their prejudices.


These results have implications for the employee selection process. Organizations might want to look for employees who display characteristics associated with a predisposition against prejudice. These personality traits include agreeableness and openness to experience.

In the absence of internal motivation to control personal biases, organizations can protect against the detriments of this “stigma-by-association” through developing new organizational norms and structures, for example, through a hospitable diversity culture that promotes racial equality. Organizations can also reduce intergroup biases by developing an organizational identity that employees can buy into, as this transcends other influences. Stronger identification with the organization can be facilitated by rewarding and recognizing the individuals whose efforts and performance enhance the organizational identity.

Organizations can also improve fairness by closely scrutinizing the process used for performance assessments and compensation evaluations. These evaluations should concern specific task examples and should not be based on general impressions of employees.

Hernandez, M., Avery, D. R., Tonidandel, S., Hebl, M. R., Smith, A. N., & McKay, P. F. (2015). The Role of Proximal Social Contexts: Assessing Stigma-by-Association Effects on Leader Appraisals. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(1), 68-85.