If you need additional evidence that expectations of self and others shape how well people perform on tasks, just read Claude Steele’s new book, “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.” In an interview by NPR “Talk of the Nation” host Neal Conan, Steele answers questions about how his 20 years of research reported in the book shows that when a math task is important to women, their performance is affected by the stereotype that all women are poor at math. He says:
…if you're a woman, and you don't care about doing well with math, your life is on another path, then the prospect of confirming such a stereotype about your group's ability… isn't as upsetting to you because you're not invested in that area, but when you've really invested yourself, then the prospect of that stereotype being true or its being seen to be true and you being treated accordingly, that has considerable impact. It scares you, and that fear can directly interfere with your functioning.
Steele calls this phenomenon the “stereotype threat.” When asked about the alternative theory, that low performance is caused by innate limits on ability, Steele counters that argument by saying:
…that theory would predict that nothing you did in the situation would change. If you give them difficult math, women are always going to under-perform. If you give difficult problems, African-American students are always going to under-perform. Well, they don't when you do things in those situations to reduce stereotype threat and that is probably the principal evidence [on] behalf of this argument.
Stereotyping threatens the performance of employees in organizations. In our book, “The 5As Framework”, Sean Murray and I write about the effect that expectations have on learning and performance. We call this “anticipation”. Stereotyping is a negative expectation that causes learners and others in the organization to anticipate an inability to learn and failure to achieve business goals. As a counter to stereotyping, organizations need leaders and managers who are always expecting both high levels of learning and high performance from every employee every day.