Friday, 16 March 2012

Leader evaluations draw on different racial stereotypes depending on leadership performance

We may think of stereotypes as fixed entities, but research suggests they are applied under certain conditions, often to make sense of situations. A new article applies this theory of 'goal based stereotyping' to leadership, specifically the stereotype that 'black' people (the term used in the article) possess less leadership competence, in terms of qualities like intelligence, determination, or decisiveness. When a black leader performs poorly, the incompetence stereotype can be applied to easily explain the situation. It's less useful – and hence less likely to be used - when a black leader succeeds. Instead other, positive stereotypes can come into play, such as the stereotype that black people are especially warm or have 'survival instincts'. The success of the leader is justified on the basis of such qualities, seen as handy in some contexts but essentially compensatory, rather than core to the critical characteristic of leadership competence.

This argument was put to the test by investigators Andrew Carton and Ashleigh Rosette using a very specific example of leadership: US college football quarterbacks. These, considered leaders in their field*, are repeatedly publicly evaluated by the media, making possible an archival study which looking at weekly reports from newspapers on the games of top-league university teams in 2007. The study focused on accounts involving each team's key quarterback; 31 of these were black and 82 white. Coders - blind to the purpose of the study - sought out 'evaluative phrases', where adjectives or adverbs were applied to the quarterback or his actions. These were then coded according to their valence (positive or negative) and meaning: competence statements were those that referenced the relevant leadership qualities such as intelligence or decisiveness, whereas compensatory statements were those that referenced a specific non-leadership quality that could have a bearing on quarterback performance: athleticism, which is a positive stereotype associated with black people.

How did race influence quarterback evaluation? As per predictions, it depended on performance – in this case, match outcome. When black quarterbacks suffered a loss, they were more likely to be painted as an incompetent leader than a white peer, but there was no difference on this measure when they won. The exact opposite pattern was found with athleticism, which was attributed to black quarterbacks more frequently, but only when they won.  Each stereotype leapt out as needed.

Carton and Rosette point out the obvious lesson for organisations: "success may not be credited to the leadership ability of blacks, but instead to attributes that are perceived to compensate for incompetence." They suggest vigilance in identifying compensatory stereotyping and combating it through challenging broad stereotypes (for instance, through examples of successful black leadership) and encouraging specific black leaders to circulate 'individuating' information such as track record and skill sets, in order to contextualise their endeavours and makes it less useful to reach for the sense-making, broad brush explanation.

ResearchBlogging.orgCarton, A., & Rosette, A. (2011). Explaining Bias against Black Leaders: Integrating Theory on Information Processing and Goal-Based Stereotyping The Academy of Management Journal, 54 (6), 1141-1158 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2009.0745

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