Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Distributed work

Claude Steele on improving diversity in distributed work

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Published on June 05, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

Let’s say you’re in a new situation in life. Maybe you just got a job right before lockdown and you’ve been onboarded virtually to your new company and team.

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And let’s say there’s something different between you and the culture of your new team. Maybe, it’s your gender or the color of your skin. Maybe your age. Or any number of other potential differences, socio-economic, cultural, linguistic, academic, you name it.

What is the one thing your new company could do to put you at ease? The stakes are high. Setting the stage properly will make you much more likely to succeed in your new role. But missing this beat could cause you to expend a lot of your mental energy trying to decode whether you’ll be judged for who you are and what you contribute, or based on whatever stereotype(s) you may represent.

This doubt about your safety from prejudice at work is an example of what social psychologist Claude Steele calls stereotype threat. And it is a contributing factor to diminished performance in situations where the person is susceptible to such a threat. This happens not only on the job but also with GPAs and SATs at school and in all kinds of interpersonal relationships. 

Let’s switch the scenario. Now imagine you’re a black social psychology graduate student at Ohio State University in the late-sixties. You’re very aware of what makes you different in that environment. You find yourself looking at your hands, noticing the color of your skin. And you’re trying to understand what the rules are, what’s important, and whether your difference matters in how people will think of you and whether you will succeed.

These questions take up too much brain space. The ruminating mind finds a lot to chew on in uncertain situations. What if it’s all about statistics and that’s not your strong suit? Such musings are not purely academic. The stereotype threat you feel is based on centuries of actual threats ranging from economic disenfranchisement to systemic violence that continue to the present day.

From threat to membership

Then one day you meet your future academic advisor. He doesn’t look like you, he doesn’t act like you, but he’s very clear. He tells you about the high standards required to do great science, and he lets you know he believes you can achieve those standards. And not only that, he tells you what to pay attention to, what the institution values, and what you need to do. He tells you not to get psyched out about statistics.

This was the experience of the young Claude Steele who went on to do groundbreaking work at Stanford as a social psychologist, teaching his students those same high standards. Stereotype threat is the social phenomenon he has led research on for the past 25 years. It’s exactly what Steele experienced as a student, and the role of his advisor has become the key to disarming this threat. “He gave me a concrete image of what this work was about, and how to do it,” Steele says.  

But this isn’t a story about the value of mentoring. Remember, Steele is a social psychologist who is implicated in the subject of his own research. Throughout his career he’s been aware of the achievement gaps that have stymied institutional efforts at integration and diversity. He experienced the mental processes triggered by social stereotypes. None of his classmates needed to be racist for him to feel his difference. And that feeling causes the mind to spin and distract itself from the task at hand.

This is ultimately the impact of stereotype threat and its pernicious effect on performance. If the task at hand is, for instance, a difficult math test for a female student, the mere reminder of her gender before testing is enough to decrease her score. And the better she is at math, the stronger the effect. These counterintuitive findings have been independently confirmed in a very wide range of situations by a large number of researchers, as Steele describes in his book, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The book’s title comes from the technique another young black student (and future New York Times columnist, Brent Staples) devised to reduce social tension while walking on the nighttime streets of Hyde Park.

Stereotype threat in distributed work

Stereotype threat, Steele argues, is worse in situations that are ambiguous. The person clearly feels the threat, but what to do about it is ambiguous. “A little bit like the nation dealing with the pandemic,” he explains. “We know it's threatening, we're convinced about that, and it's up in the air as to what we're supposed to do about it.” With whole companies working from home and so much uncertainty in the world, won’t stereotypes be more damaging when all we see are faces on a Zoom screen?

Steele is not so sure. The more we discussed it, the more strongly he came to feel that distributed work could in fact diminish the effects of stereotype threat. Whether or not stereotype threat is greater or lesser in a given situation, he points out, is an empirical question answerable through research and data. But there are some suggestive clues. In distributed work, Steele says, “the cues are different. I’m in my home and I have around me the things I love. That just inherently feels like a safer space than being the only minority in a room.” With the pandemic, he continues, “we're getting used to Zoom and everybody's kind of in the same box, it’s sort of an equalizer.” 

But when you click deeper into what may be happening on Zoom, another pattern emerges. “Some of the body language that would allow people in a real life meeting to dominate isn't available to them. And that kind of behavior would stand out more on the screen and in a gallery view,” he points out. The structure of the video conference has a moderating influence. “The etiquette of having to formally raise your hand and get in a queue trains us to behave a little,” he says. “I can trust that my participation is going to be managed a little more fairly in that situation.” This leveling of the playing field in our “Zoom lives” makes it harder for exclusionary behavior to play out.

Your brain on stereotype threat

To understand what might be happening in the mind of someone experiencing stereotype threat, it helps to look at the brain’s primal threat and reward system. “One of the basic laws of psychology is that stress involves two appraisals,” Steele says. “There’s the primary appraisal, is this situation threatening? And then there’s a secondary appraisal, do I have a response to it?” The essence of stereotype threat is the stress you feel from not knowing how to respond to the threat. “If I can find a response, I calm down, and that enables me to enjoy some situations that would otherwise be very stressful,” he says, “like living in New York.”

“When you’re under stereotype threat, the amygdala is more activated, it’s driving the bus, and the prefrontal cortex you need to recruit to take a math test is suppressed.” —Claude Steele

As neuroscientist Kay Tye has demonstrated in her work on the amygdala, that first response is about the magnitude of the threat: How surprising is this? The second response is about the valence: Is this good or bad? The amygdala not only warns us of threats, it’s also integral to learning. So if you have a good response to a threat it becomes a challenge, potentially an opportunity, and eventually a learned behavior. “When you’re under stereotype threat, the amygdala is more activated, it’s driving the bus,” Steele says, “and the prefrontal cortex you need to recruit to take a math test is suppressed.” 

This is the basic mechanism, but far from the full story. To perform at a high level, a person needs to be able to tune out distractions and focus energy on exactly those neural pathways associated with the required performance, whether it be math, music, or a hundred yard dash. When a potential threat grabs our attention, not only is this delicate focus disrupted, but that energy is hijacked by negative emotions associated with our memories of similar threats. This is where bad feelings can spiral out of control. As Steele describes the experience, “I can double read everything that happens.”

Anyone can be subject to this kind of threat. If you’re the only white person in a room, the threat of appearing racist can have a chilling effect on your participation in the conversation. Anytime you don’t feel you can be yourself in a situation, you incur mental overhead that impairs your performance. This social discomfort is neither universally acknowledged nor evenly distributed. But the problem is so common that everyone can relate to it, which may be the secret to overcoming it.

Signaling identity bonus

What’s exciting for Steele in this new context are the echoes of what first helped him find his way at Ohio State. Steele soon went from running an identity deficit to getting an identity bonus. His advisor let him into the club. He invited his student into the world of highly functional social psychologists. He talked to Steele exactly like a member of the club, like a scientist.

This signal is the one thing your new company could do to diffuse stereotype threat. You need to feel, right off the bat, that you belong. “I think at base what our institutions and organizations need to do is exactly that,” say Steele. “They need to come to the person with that kind of recognition: I hired you; I admitted you; I am going to treat you like you have the potential.” He admits this is, “a simple thing, but I think it's the heart of the matter. Until I get that signal, my amygdala is doing all the work.” By cluing Steele in, his mentor not only helped launch a brilliant career, he prefigured one of the main ways to reduce stereotype threat. “As soon as I get that signal,” Steele continues, “my amygdala can take a weekend.”

But that feeling of belonging has to be coupled with clear expectations that include a clear path into the culture and on to success. The organization has to foster what psychologist, and former Steele student, Carol Dweck named the “growth mindset.” Rather than think our success is based on immutable factors, like race or gender, we need to focus on what we can learn and improve. Steele thinks that we have not fully understood what we took on by trying to create a diverse society, and how much learning is required on all sides. He says the prevailing attitude until recently was that, “the organization assumed, I let you in, that's your opportunity. I'm colorblind.” 

The diverse organization

Steele does not believe a diverse organization has to be blind to the differences of its members. But it does need to have clear structures that let everyone know they will be treated fairly. Those cues, formal and implied, are what allow people to relax and let their guard down. This is why candor is such an important part of building psychological safety on teams—and why stereotype threat is the enemy of candor. You can imagine the collective impact on the mental resources of an entire organization going from watchful vigilance to convivial ease.

The embrace of distributed work by companies that previously resisted letting employees work remotely may make a surprising contribution to diversity efforts by reducing stereotype threat. Certainly, as diversity researcher and consultant Carolina Milanesi wrote recently, “Remote work can open the door to talent pools that are more diverse in three key areas: gender, accessibility, and race.” But the effects that Steele’s research point to are about what happens when diverse candidates are interviewing and eventually hired.

As a gut check, I asked Dropbox head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Daniel Guillory for reports of unintended slights over Zoom that left employees spinning in self-doubt. He not only hadn’t encountered any cases of worsened stereotype threat in the first months of working from home, but he sensesed that the distributed team setting was working better in some cases for members of underrepresented minorities.

One person, he says, described, “the pressure that I feel as an individual to operate in a certain way when I’m in the office doesn't exist now. I'm at home, in my surroundings, on my turf.” We’re often unaware of how our co-workers may feel armored at work, either in behavior or appearance, but Guillory’s anecdote makes this defensiveness palpable through its absence. Further echoing Steele, he also relayed his experience in a large team meeting usually conducted in person but now over Zoom. “The level of crosstalk that I saw was extraordinary. I was really surprised by the level of comfort people had speaking in that environment.” The team leader, who often does most of the talking, was now just “another square on my grid like everybody else.”

What happened that day over Zoom wasn’t a spontaneous miracle. The leader in question is very disciplined about how she manages her team, ensuring everyone has a turn to speak, dividing up projects fairly between team members, and looking for growth opportunities. Stereotype threat is a recursive process, growing out of past negative experiences. Combating it requires consistency and perseverance to bend the curve back in a positive direction.

Stereotype threat thrives on ambiguity, which makes clarity a very effective tool for managers and organizations to diffuse it with. Just as a side benefit of the pandemic has been clear skies in normally smoggy cities, the explicitness of work arrangements under lockdown has a silver lining. “Maybe distributed work, by contributing some concrete pattern that everybody clearly has to practice, clears out some of the ambiguity,” Steele ventures. “Does this distributed situation,” he asks, “actually give me a more ordered way of behaving in a situation that might otherwise be threatening?”