How Stereotypes Impair Performance

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Why It Pays for Negotiators to Feel Powerful,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Simply knowing that others may be judging us according to negative stereotypes can impair our performance, according to Stanford University professor Claude Steele. All of us—from white males to African American women to those low on the workplace totem pole—experience this stereotype threat at different points in our lives. The fear of acting in a way that confirms a negative stereotype actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Motivated individuals who are skilled at a task may suffer more from the fear of being stereotyped than those who are less motivated and skilled, Steele has found.

In one study, Steele and New York University professor Joshua Aronson had African American and white Stanford students take a difficult verbal test adapted from the advanced Graduate Record Examination in literature. Black students performed significantly worse than white students when the test was presented as a measure of intellectual ability. The scores of black students rose to match those of similarly qualified whites when they were told the test did not measure intellectual ability.

In the prior condition, in which the test was purported to measure ability, the researchers found that the performance of the most skilled, confident, and motivated African American students suffered more than the performance of less-skilled African American students. It seems that being highly motivated to achieve can make you more fearful of being stereotyped and more susceptible to being thrown off your game.

The solution? Tell negotiators in your organization that you will hold them to high standards that you believe they are capable of meeting. Steele’s research has shown repeatedly that difficult yet attainable goals can help individuals overcome stereotype threat.

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