Management Paper: Reducing Stereotype Threat

(This post consists of my excerpts from a team paper on perception and attribution.)


This paper is about “Stereotype Threat at Work” by Loriann Roberson and Carol T. Kulik in Chapter 10: Perception and Attribution in the 9th edition of The Organizational Behavior Reader. This article will be summarized, analyzed, and discussed with regards to understanding management and organizational behavior. First, the major points of the article will be summarized. Second, the content will be analyzed and critiqued in regards to its completeness in tackling the issue and how well it supports its arguments. Third, the application of the article with regards to modern science, technology, and engineering management will be discussed. Through the complete analysis of this article, this paper will provide a cohesive look at the ideas provided in the article and create a broader view of major issues in perception and attribution.


Stereotype Threat at Work

Kray, Thompson, & Galinsky (Roberson and Kulik in Osland and Turner 2011, 272) have an excellent definition of stereotype threat: “Stereotype threat describes the psychological experience of a person who, while engaged in a task, is aware of a stereotype about his or her identity group suggesting that he or she will not perform well on that task. . . . This awareness can have a disruptive effect on performance—ironically resulting in the individual confirming the very stereotype he or she wanted to disconfirm.” When stereotype threat is present, employees feel more motivated to prove themselves; however, this motivation does not provide better quality work. Since many stereotypes exist, most people are susceptible to stereotype threat. Here is a list of stereotypes from the article that can affect an individual’s performance regardless of actual ability (Roberson and Kulik in Osland and Turner 2011, 274-275):

  • Blacks lack intellectual ability.
  • Latinos lack intellectual ability.
  • Low SES students lack intellectual ability.
  • Women have weak math ability.
  • Older people have bad memory.
  • Gay men are dangerous to young children.
  • Persons with a head injury history experience a loss of cognitive performance.
  • Whites are racist.
  • White students have less mathematical ability than Asian students.
  • Men are less capable than women in dealing with affective (emotional) information.
  • White men have less athletic prowess than Black men.

Token individuals (people who are the only one of their kind) are quite aware of situations in which stereotypes exist. The problem is that these individuals care so much about performance that they may either try too hard or make overly cautious attempts at work.

What are the conditions necessary for stereotype threat to exist? Any time an employee believes a trait linked to stereotypes about groups is necessary for quality performance is an instance where stereotype threat may exist. First, stereotype threat occurs when the task is challenging. Worrying about the views of others decreases performance. Second, stereotype threat is likely to occur when an individual identifies as someone who should have expertise in the given task. Lastly, stereotype threat is likely to occur in contexts where employees perceive stereotypes to be operating.

Stereotype threat can disrupt performance but Roberson and Kulik have some recommendations for reducing the effects of stereotype threat. How can managers and interrupt the stereotype threat process? Managers can provide a successful task strategy by explicitly telling employees what behaviors they need to use to succeed. Managers can remind employees of the importance of skills without stereotype relevance. Managers can explain that stereotype threat may make employees feel anxious about the given task, but the stereotype is not related to the individual’s ability to do well. If at all possible, managers could arrange work to remove people from token situations. Reducing stereotype threat contrasts from diversity management. In an effort to reduce stereotype threat, stereotypes are addressed directly and the onus is shifted from the manager’s potential prejudice to the effect of the environment itself.


Critique of Stereotype Threat at Work

Roberson and Kulik effectively summarize research findings on stereotype threat. They provide a useful working definition of stereotype threat, compile examples, outline steps in the stereotype threat process, and provide strategies for interrupting the stereotype threat process. Very little of the article is devoted to the concrete benefits of applying stereotype threat reduction techniques to diversity management.

The concept of stereotype threat may seem obvious in hindsight, particularly to those aware of intersectionality among multiple groups; however, some managers and organizations might not realize how important the issue is. Those familiar with the concept of the Yerkes-Dodson law could easily see why the idea of stereotype threat could be a factor affecting performance. People suffering from stereotype threat care about the outcome of the task to the point of reducing performance. Over a dozen years of research shows that stereotype threat is common in the workplace and there are things managers can do to minimize its effects.

People of privilege may not be aware of how much a problem stereotype threat really is. Roberson and Kulik do mention that men, whites, and white men sometimes suffer from stereotype threat, but they fail to emphasize how much of an issue stereotypes are for the rest of the stereotyped individuals. Being seen as racist, having poor athletic prowess, and having difficulty with emotions do not come with the same stakes as being seen as posing a threat or lacking intellectual ability. Furthermore, the stereotypes applied to some groups may be in areas that aren’t as valued as the stereotypes applied to other groups. Lastly, people that are not marginalized are unlikely to be placed in token situations. However, these concepts may apply to more people as companies move towards globalization. For future work, I think it would be beneficial to do research on the cost of stereotype threat in domestic and international contexts.


Application of Stereotype Threat at Work

Stereotype threat in modern science, technology, and engineering management is very likely going to need to be addressed. As women, minorities, and other diverse individuals start to become token individuals in science and engineering companies, it is important to understand stereotype threat to reduce deviant behavior and turnover. Once companies start to have a reputation as a good place to work for diverse individuals, companies can attract more and more diverse talent.

Overcoming stereotype threat at work is important so managers can empower all employees to succeed. Some of the suggested strategies would be beneficial for training individuals from stereotyped groups and non-stereotyped groups. Successful task strategies could benefit new employees acquiring new skills. Reminding employees of why they were hired as a good fit for the team may be good for motivation. Witnessing others being appreciated for who they are may be good for the whole team’s morale.

Interrupting the stereotype threat process can have a significant impact on productivity in multiple settings. Some potential benefits have been discussed and more research can be done on how reducing stereotype threat can reduce potential costs. If managers fail to effectively utilize a diverse workforce, much potential value could be lost to companies with effective diversity management programs. In competitive global markets, all resources, including human resources, must be effectively managed to stay in business.


Judging people based on what they look like or other identifying characteristics unrelated to ability is a dangerous and costly mistake. To do so would be to attribute false meaning where meaning does not exist. Some people who behave in stereotyped ways do not represent the whole group. The problem with stereotypes is that people who act in a way that confirm the stereotype are remembered and people who disconfirm the stereotype are considered exceptions. Performing poorly due to anxiety from fear of confirming stereotypes continues to provide people with inaccurate information. Fortunately, Roberson and Kulik suggest strategies for reducing stereotype threat.


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