Tip 5: Provide legitimate encouragement

The situation:

Have you ever heard an employee – especially an employee from an underrepresented group – worry that they may not be qualified for a particular opportunity or think that they may not be ready for a leadership position? A variety of factors make it more difficult to take risks or apply for new opportunities when one is a minority in a majority-group environment. One such reason is stereotype threat – the fear that our actions will confirm negative stereotypes about an identity group (e.g., gender, race, age) to which we belong. More than 300 research studies with different populations (e.g., elderly, people of color, men, women) have documented that this unconscious phenomenon can reduce feelings of competence, lessen one’s sense of belonging, and negatively affect performance.

These factors can prevent people from taking unnecessary risks for fear that any mistakes they make will be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that they are a woman or member of another underrepresented group. And indeed, people often do use these explanations when members of underrepresented groups make mistakes.

What you can do:

  • Encourage others to apply or ask for a certain position, award, or role. This simple strategy can go a long way toward mitigating the potential effects of stereotype threat. While such encouragement is important for all employees, it is particularly important for minority members in a majority-group environment.
  • Interrupt when you hear someone say that “so and so just isn’t very confident or is not a risk-taker.” Let them know that often this is not so much about the individual but the environment they find themselves in.
  • Interrupt explanations that attribute someone’s mistakes to an identity group (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation) to which they belong, even when said in jest.

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