Strategies for Workplace Success While Coping with Stigma

strategiesWe all know that, unfortunately, discrimination and prejudice can limit opportunities for people. But belonging to a devalued group may also harm people’s workplace performance via the effects of associated stereotypes. In grad school, I became interested in how people who are successful despite belonging to such devalued groups do it. What’s going on psychologically that helps them overcome the negative effects of being viewed poorly by others based on group membership?

This American Psychologist article, co-authored by Margaret Shih, Maia Young, and me,  is the result of that line of inquiry. We spent time reviewing tons of work on how people respond to being stereotyped, what happens to their performance and their well-being as a result, and what they can do about. We found there are two broad classes of strategies people use to succeed from under the shadow of a stereotype:

Identity Switching

The idea behind identity switching is that everyone belongs to multiple groups. You can emphasize some over others; in extreme cases, you may even “pass” by pretending not to belong to a group. People who identity switch punch up or lay claim to identities that are positive in the workplace over their less valued alternatives. Think about a woman who is “one of the guys.”

Identity switching may happen more often in workplaces with strong organizational cultures. If it’s important to be “part of the Widget team,” that may take precedence over racial, ethnic, or gender identities at work.

Identity Redefinition

This is a more active strategy that focuses on changing what it means to belong to a certain group. To use a lighter example, this is a strategy I found myself using in grad school when I had the unpleasant realization that it is deeply uncool to have gone to Harvard. Apparently people think we’re snobby, stuck-up nerds. What!?!?

It’s hard to avoid “dropping the H-bomb,” as we call it, especially in grad school where introductions often rely on your past educational affiliation. So instead I learned to drop the bomb with a little humor and then quickly demonstrate how the stereotypes about we Crimson are bollocks (I am using typical Harvardian vocabulary here; we’re also all elderly Englishmen). It took some time, but I’d like to think that by the time I left Michigan, the people who knew me had started to think about Harvard as a place where smart, hard-working, excellent dancers went to school. OK, maybe not the last part.

Identity redefinition may be more appealing to someone who really loves or identifies with a group she belongs to and doesn’t want to downplay or deny it. Why not flaunt group membership and show others why it’s a positive thing?

The cool thing about these strategies is that they’re largely something people do without realizing it. Sure, sometimes people will consciously choose to own group membership or not, or they might do like me and make an effort to prove a stereotype wrong. But oftentimes it’s far more subtle than that.