What is stereotype threat and how does it impact you and your organization? How about identity threat? What can you do to reduce both types of threat and maximize your performance and that of your team?

These and other important questions are the subject of a terrific book by Claude Steele, Provost of Columbia University, titled Whistling Vivaldi. The title refers to the story of a young black man who realizes he can defuse the fears of white people by whistling tunes from classical composers, including Vivaldi. With this and other stories and research, the author describes how stereotypes influence behavior and performance, and importantly, how these impacts can be mitigated.

Stereotype threat is the pressure one feels not to confirm a negative stereotype about one’s gender, race, or other aspect of identity. One example from Steele’s research: Women in our society are stereotyped to be less talented at math than men. Women who are reminded of this stereotype before taking a difficult math test perform worse than women who are not similarly prompted. This and many other examples from Steele’s research describe the psychological and physiological impact of stereotypes and their impact on performance.

Identity contingencies are contingencies special to you because of your social identity. Identity threat is the subset of contingencies that threaten a person in some way. Steele relates the story of a Stanford graduate student suffering from bipolar disorder. Her worry of being seen as “crazy” if anyone found out about her illness causes her to keep it a secret and not to speak up in a variety of situations.

But what if you are black and worry about the negative contingencies you might face as a black college student or employee? This threat, real or perceived, becomes part of one’s daily reality and impacts relationships, performance and behavior.

Steele suggests a variety of research validated strategies for reducing identity and stereotype threat:

  • Building positive relationships
  • Environments rich in autonomy and choice
  • Using diversity as a resource vs. following a strategy of “colorblindness”
  • Leader (teacher) warmth and availability
  • Leader competence and skill

There are certain books and authors that I find myself returning to over and over. Carl Rogers; Ram Charan; Patrick Lencioni; Douglas Stone; Robert Kaplan; Nancy Barger and Linda Kirby; and many others. Claude Steele and Whistling Vivaldi will now be added to the list.

If this topic is of interest to you, give me a call or send me an email and lets grab coffee. I’m sure we’ll have a stimulating conversation!

P.S. Thank you to Melissa Marver for bringing this important book to my attention!

You Worked Hard To Reach The Top

You Worked Hard To Reach The Top

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