Calvin Strachan | How Stereotypes Impact Your Performance
Over the span of my career I've held many roles, most of which required me to perform under massive pressure.
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How Stereotypes Impact Your Performance

How do stereotypes negatively affect performance?

What do I mean? I’m obviously a black guy (in case you hadn’t noticed) and I grew up in a very small town. Basically, I was the pepper in the salt shaker. So, when you’re a young guy in a town like that, trying to figure out where you belong, and where you fit in, you turn to all kinds of sources

One thing I turned to when I was that age was television. Specifically, watching the news. Me and my dad one day, were watching the news and we noticed this newscast on intelligence. The investigators, rated the races on intelligence, and they finally decided who was the most intelligent race. My eyes were glued to the screen, in anticipation of the response. The first race was Asian. Based on cranial capacity, Asian’s were the smartest race. Number two was Caucasian and number three was blacks. They didn’t say African American back then, just blacks.

All of a sudden, I realized I’m not as smart as Asians or Caucasians. Then I would go to class and do a test and get decent marks. I was getting A’s and B’s as a student and I would think: “ah, I’m just getting lucky”; or “I’m not as smart as these kids”; or “maybe the test was a little easier this time, the questions were kinda obvious”. I didn’t think I was as smart and I had this belief growing up.

As you’re reading this you might be thinking,  “you were a kid of course you didn’t know any better. It was a silly newscast”.

Here’s something fascinating. A recent study was conducted at Stanford University. Stanford University is one of the most prestigious schools in the world. The brightest of the bright go there. They looked at a study comparing blacks and whites facing a stereotype. Here’s what they did; two groups were compared. They placed black and white students in one group and black and white students in another group. Before they did a standardized test a like a GRE, they asked the groups to complete a background check before taking the test.

In the one group with black and white students, they had them answer questions referring to age, demographic, where they grew up, what country they’re from, what city they’re from, all that kind of stuff, but they also focused on their race. Which required the participants to focus on their race. In short, I am black  which put emphasis on the stereotype that blacks are not as smart as whites

In the other group, the participants completed the same background test but without any reference to race.

Both groups completed their respective background checks and then wrote the test. What do you think happened?

In the group that had to focus on race before the test, the black students marks were significantly lower than the white students marks. In the second group, where the black and white students did not focus on race whatsoever, there was no difference in the marks at all.

What does that mean?

That means the stereotype impacted their performance. Meaning simply focusing on the idea that blacks are not as smart as whites was enough to trigger them to do poorly. Remember this study was conducted with the the best of the best kids. Generally speaking only the smartest people going to Stanford.

Even if they didn’t believe in such a ridiculous idea, the mere thought that their observers believed in it, triggered them. Understand that. Sometimes you genuinely  don’t believe in a stupid belief or a ridiculous stereotype but the fact that others believe in it can be enough to debilitate your performance.

So how do you fight this?

Some people say well, geez, you’re talking about black and white quite a bit here Cal.

What was fascinating about this study was it wasn’t just black and white. They did the same study with Caucasian men. They had Caucasian men and Asian men take a test and they had the Caucasian men focus on the fact that Asians are better at math. At the completion of the the test the Caucasian men’s score came down. In the other group that did not have to focus on the stereotype, no change, the marks between the races was the same. Just simply focusing on the idea that Asians are better at math, screwed the white guys out of a good test score. Does that make sense?

It’s not just black and white. It’s not just Asian and white. It’s not just male and female. It’s anybody focusing on a debilitating stereotype will ruin their performance. So, how do we stop this? How do we still find a way to win in the face of these stupid stereotypes?

Here’s how you do it.

Before your test, before your performance, before whatever you’re doing, write down what it is that’s good about you, your positive qualities. It can be literally anything. It could be that you have straight hair. It could be that you walk to work three times a week. It could be that you volunteer for a church group. It could be that you read to some kids in the library, you held the door for a stranger. Everything counts don’t censor yourself. Write out your positive qualities, focusing on the great things about you. This exercise can be enough to offset the negative stereotype.

Also, this was proven. In another study, before a test, investigators separated the participants into mixed groups of black and white students. They asked them to focus on what’s good about themselves. In other words “What are your positive qualities ?”. After the test their was no difference in test scores. This isn’t just bunk, this is actually proven.

The second thing is this; if you focus on someone who defies a stereotype, that can also offset the stereotype. In another study they had mixed race groups but this time they had them watch an address by President Barack Obama. Seeing this articulate, educated, well-spoken black man deliver a powerful message, helped these participants to offset the negative stereotype. As a result there was no difference in test scores.

To really wrap up, if you’re facing a silly stereotype such as: blacks aren’t as intelligent as whites; or women aren’t as good at math as men; or white men can’t jump.  Whatever you’re facing, you want to focus on your positive qualities. The second thing is focus on those who are actually defying the stereotype. If you can do those two things, you will find a way to win.

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