Business Psychology

Article No. 332
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

To Resist a Power Stereotype

New research reveals resistance to stereotypes in some organizations.

Here’s an exercise for you: name groups and list stereotypes you have of them: women, Hispanics, unemployed men, and so on. Once you get started, you’ll find your list grows rather quickly. As a people, we tend to generalize our perceptions, experiences, and knowledge of individuals into stereotypes of groups.

Both positive and negative stereotypes attach themselves to people. They color our opinions and actions, and we are coached to resist them in our work. But the subject takes a curious turn when we apply stereotypes to ourselves.

If you are Asian, and you are aware of a stereotype that Asians excel in mathematics, how does this stereotype affect your self concept, decisions, and behavior? If you are a woman, and you are aware of a stereotype that women do not excel in mathematics, how does this stereotype affect your self-concept, decisions, and behavior? And what if you happen to be both Asian and a woman?

Just as your list of stereotypes grew quickly, this list of stereotypes that apply to you will grow quickly, too, and it raises some interesting questions. Which stereotypes apply to you? When do you allow stereotypes to influence you, what you think about yourself, how you feel, and what you do? Finally, when do you actively resist stereotypes that apply to you?

For example, the Asian woman mentioned above . . . what does she do about mathematics? Surprisingly, research has an answer. In a recent study, Asian women who were reminded of their ethnicity and then given an exercise in mathematics did well. Other Asian women who were reminded of their gender did poorly on the same exercise. How very curious!

Now return to your list of stereotypes and look for an entry titled “people with power.” You probably won’t find it, but all organizations have hierarchies, and all organizations have people occupying positions of power. List a few qualities that comprise this stereotype. List both positive and negative qualities, for example, bossy, helpful, unfeeling, instructive, cruel, inspiring, and so on. Now, think about yourself. Which stereotypes apply to you? How do you feel about these stereotypes?

When people enter the ranks of management, they are given power over others. When this happens, there is always a danger that they will handle the change poorly, that they will embrace the negative stereotypes of power, and that they will become tyrants for those who call them boss. Such people stimulate lots of negative energy and direct attention away from company objectives. They are bad for business. Most organizations anticipate this problem and carefully control the markers of power. Markers of power are the outward signs that one person has power and others do not. Some examples include a reserved parking place, a pager worn on the belt, a corner office, a new computer or other advanced technology, wearing a tie, being called “doctor,” and so on. In order to control how people react to having power over others, we often carefully control these markers so that those with power often become invisible. Everyone knows who has power, but there are no markers. Everything looks quite equitable.

The objective is to help people with power resist embracing the negative stereotypes that lead to tyranny, but does it work? That’s a question that Brianna Caza from Wake Forest University addressed in a recent study.

Professor Caza worked with 84 supervisors from a variety of settings. She measured their perceptions of the division of power in their organizations, and she found a range of answers. Some supervisors reported explicit divisions of power with clear markers showing who had power and who did not. Other supervisors reported implicit divisions of power with vague or missing power markers. The division of power existed, but it would be difficult for outsiders to recognize it. Finally, she measured supervisors’ self concepts and their actual behaviors. Specifically, she measured how they felt about being supervisors and how supportive they were of their subordinates.

When Caza had finished crunching all the numbers, she found a clear difference, but it was not what you would expect. The most helpful and supportive supervisors worked in settings with explicit divisions of power and clear power markers. They also saw themselves as the leaders of a cooperative effort of a group rather then a boss who gave instructions others were expected to follow. Caza was not surprised by this finding.

Past research has demonstrated that when people are uncomfortable with a stereotype that applies to them, they sometimes resist it. They have a contrary reaction. Telling a woman that she can’t run a business is a sure way to enlist her best efforts to prove you wrong. The supervisors Caza studied who worked in explicit power settings with clear power markers were reminded of their power status, and, as a group, they resisted the negative stereotype. This resistance did not exist in settings with implicit divisions of power and invisible power markers.

If you need supervisors to act like leaders of a cooperative group, and lead people who most need support from their supervisors, then explicit power markers would help you toward this goal.

Reference: Caza, Brianna Barker, Larissa Tiedens, and Fiona Lee (2011) Power Becomes You: The Effects of Implicit and Explicit Power on the Self. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 114(1), 15-24.

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