Avoiding stereotypical threats in the workplace


The world is full of positive and negative stereotypes. Most of us know various stereotypes and have even stereotyped ourselves. However, more recent studies in the social sciences prove that stereotypes can materialize to the point of hampering the daily lives of employees. The threat of stereotypes, while sometimes difficult to identify, is active and alive in many workplaces, whether we know it or not.


What is a stereotypical threat? Claude Steele, professor at Stanford University and famous for his book Vivaldi whistle, defines stereotypical threat as “a feeling of anxiety in a situation where a person has the potential to conform to a negative stereotype regarding their social group, be it race, gender, socio class -economic or any other aspect of identity ”. For example, a 2002 study by Professors Kray, Galinsky and Thompson found that women pursuing an MBA faced challenges related to the threat of stereotypes in mixed negotiations. The presence of a negative stereotype in a particular industry can contribute to poor performance. Other examples of threat of stereotyping include the low scores of African Americans on standardized tests, the inequality of women in leadership positions, and the low representation of ethnic minorities in CEO positions.


What are the causes of the threat of stereotypes? Steele noted that the threat of stereotypes can be triggered by low representation of minorities and feelings of inferiority inherent in certain types of organizational structures. In the workplace, the threat of stereotypes can prevent employees from applying for jobs, seeking promotions, and performing well within an organization. People facing the threat of stereotypes recognize that they raise negative expectations. Therefore, they use cognitive resources to prove or deny negative preconceived expectations. Work evaluations with few holistic measures are an example of an organizational structure that can trigger a threat of stereotyping as well as undermining comments made by colleagues.


The threat of stereotypes does not always have to be obvious and pervasive. Studies have shown that remembering that someone belongs to one group or another can have a negative effect on performance. Additionally, studies from the American Psychological Association demonstrate that the threat of stereotypes can also lead to higher levels of disidentification and disengagement. However, the negative impacts of the stereotypical threat can also include:

  • Decreased creativity, flexibility and speed
  • Reduced working memory capacity

Ways to tackle the threat of stereotypes at work

There is no clear way to eliminate the threat of stereotypes in the workplace. However, several studies suggest these approaches:

  • Improve vocational training so that people feel prepared and valued.
  • Positively shape basic information about a task.
  • Emphasize the importance of effort and motivation as well as results.
  • Beware of weakening signals.

The threat of stereotyping can be difficult to identify and difficult to correct. Institutional and historical forces contribute to the presence of a stereotypical threat. However, making sure your business is aware of the threat of stereotypes and taking steps to reduce its negative effects on employees can make a significant difference to morale and productivity.

For more diversity, equity and inclusion resources that will elevate your ideas, energize your initiatives, and help you make a meaningful impact within your organization, visit OpenSesame.


Comments are closed.