Co-Founders at Just Work and New York Times best-selling authors Ms Kim Scott and Ms Trier Bryant explore the threat of stereotypes and benefits of feedback.

One’s awareness of a negative stereotype about a group to which one belongs can actually harm a person’s performance: fear of confirming the stereotype raises that person’s level of anxiety and makes it harder to focus. This can occur in people at all levels of organizations, including the top, so leaders must manage it in others and be aware of it in themselves.

In Whistling Vivaldi, Stanford psychologist Claude Steele describes how negative stereotypes inhibit people’s ability to do work they are more than capable of doing.1 He described a Princeton study in which students were asked to play golf. A group of White students were divided into two groups; the first was told the task was part of an athletic aptitude test, while the second was told nothing. The White students who were told the task measured natural ability tried just as hard as the other students. But it took them an average of three strokes longer to get through the course. The hypothesis was that stereotype threat (White people have inferior athletic ability) had hurt their performance. The experiment was then repeated with Black students, for whom both groups performed equally. The difference, Steele explained, was that the Black students didn’t suffer a stereotype threat when it came to athletic ability.

Steele ran a similar experiment at Stanford, only this time looking at stereotype threat related to intellectual ability. He brought together a group of Black and White undergraduates and asked them to complete a section of the Advanced GRE test. This test was beyond what they had learned, and Steele hypothesised that the frustration at not knowing some of the answers would trigger a stereotype threat related to intellectual ability in the Black students, and cause them to underperform. Indeed, the Black students did do worse than the White students on the test. To test his hypothesis that this was a result of stereotype threat and not intellectual ability or educational achievement, Steele repeated the test with a different group of Black and White students. This time, he lifted the stereotype threat by telling the students that the test was

not a test but rather a “task” for studying general problem-solving. He emphasised that it did not measure intellectual ability. This time, the Black students performed at the same level as White test takers, and significantly better than the Black test takers who believed the test was measuring their intellectual ability.

Steele and other researchers have tested the impact of stereotypes on a wide variety of different biases. In another experiment, researchers gave girls five to seven years of age an age-appropriate math test. Just before taking the test, some of the girls were asked to color a picture of a girl their age holding a doll, while others were asked to color a landscape. The theory was that reminding the girls they were girls would be enough to trigger a stereotype threat: girls aren’t good at math. Case in point, the girls who colored a landscape did better on the math test than those who colored a girl holding a doll.

Another group of researchers asked White men with good academic track records to take a difficult math test. In the control condition, the test was taken normally. In the experimental condition, the researchers told the test takers that one of their reasons for doing the research was to understand why Asian men seemed to perform better on these tests than White men. The theory was that the stereotype threat that White people aren’t as good at math as Asian people would harm the performance of the White men on the test; and in fact, this is what happened.

Part of a leader’s job is to recognise and eliminate the pernicious effects of stereotype threats for the people on their team. It turns out that regardless of the stereotype in question, good, candid performance feedback can go a long way toward eliminating this problem, by explaining clearly what the standards are and reassuring the person you as their leader have confidence in their abilities.

Steele describes the role of good feedback in helping people who are underrepresented overcome their stereotype threats. Straightforward critical feedback from Tom Ostrom, Steele’s PhD faculty advisor, helped Steele overcome the struggles he experienced as one of the very few Black students in his program. He also alludes to research that demonstrates this was true not only for him but also for Black students at universities around the country. Note that the feedback was about the work—not about their clothing or affect or something else that might reveal bias and trigger stereotype threat. Similarly, Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll’s research has shown that career success requires candid criticism—and that many women don’t get that kind of candor from their bosses who are men.2/3

There is considerable evidence—both anecdotal and research-based—that good feedback, a clear explanation of expectations, reassurances that an employee can meet those expectations, and guidance when a candidate falls short, are crucial in helping people who are underrepresented succeed in the workplace. Important note: feedback about how other people perceive a person because of bias is not helpful feedback. The feedback should be based on performance or behaviors that can be changed, not personal attributes.

And yet, the very people who would most benefit from good feedback get it least. Overrepresented managers are more reluctant to give feedback to underrepresented employees than to other overrepresented employees. White managers are often more reluctant to give feedback to Black employees than they are to White employees; managers who are men are more reluctant to give this kind of feedback to employees who are women, and so on.

Why? Because there is another stereotype threat at play here: fear of being seen as biased, sexist, racist. Let’s go back to John, who didn’t want to tell Susan about the problems with naming her project Rolling Thunder.He remained silent not because he was a misogynist intent on hurting her career, but because he was afraid his feedback might be interpreted as mansplaining or bullying. He is experiencing stereotype threat (“She thinks I’m a sexist”) and so distancing himself from the situation. A desire not to be seen as sexist leads to discriminatory behavior, a failure to give feedback to women. Therefore stereotype threat hurts the employee’s performance and also the boss’s feedback performance.

The fact that stereotype threat might prevent an overrepresented boss from giving critical feedback to an underrepresented person on their team is really unfortunate because it’s precisely that kind of feedback that will most help the person overcome their own stereotype threat and do great work.

If you’re a leader, get proactive. Make sure you are aware of and managing your own stereotype threat, and that you are giving everyone on your team feedback.

Remember that unconscious bias training is only a start

Bias awareness training can be very helpful in rooting out unconscious bias when it’s done well by people who understand the issues deeply and who are excellent communicators. But in practice it often feels like a sort of “check the box, CYA, protect the company from legal liability, but don’t actually try to address the underlying problem” exercise. The best unconscious bias training includes both an educator/facilitator and participation from leaders, to show real commitment. However, simply requiring everyone to go to unconscious bias training, even
a great one, won’t be enough.4 No training can possibly change deeply ingrained patterns of thought. Practice is key. Education without follow-through breeds cynicism.5 Therefore, as a leader, it’s your job to figure out how you and your team can interrupt bias when you notice it.

Interrupting bias is not something leaders can delegate. Leaders must be personally involved with both helping to educate the team during the training, and, crucially, figuring out how they and their teams will interrupt bias when it shows up in conversation, in meetings, in business processes. If leaders don’t take action to interrupt bias once they recognise it, their employees will notice and think, “There it is again and I’m powerless to do anything about it, so I guess I’ll just accept it.”

An important first step is to get to a place of shared commitment. When it comes to interrupting bias, a leader’s goals are these:

  1. Make sure that the interruption is clear enough–don’t use euphemisms that belittle the problem.
  2. Make sure the interruption does not re-harm the person at whom the bias was directed.
  3. Make sure the interruption does not humiliate or attack the person who said the biased thing.
  4. Make it safe for the interruption to be public when appropriate so everyone learns. Usually I advise people to “criticise in private.” So it’s important that a bias interruption feels more like a correction of a typo than a criticism of a person. The reason interrupting bias in public is important is that one gets more educational leverage that way. Often multiple people in the room will share the bias that was spoken and will therefore benefit from the intervention.
  5. Make sure the interruption is quick enough not to derail the whole meeting. There may be times when something said is so harmful that the meeting should be derailed. But if a leader wants bias interrupting to become a norm it usually has to happen quickly, in the flow of business.
  6. Make sure there’s a commitment to come to resolution if there’s disagreement about whether what was said was biased or not. Ideally this would happen after the meeting. And if the person harmed is the person who interrupted the bias, an upstander should be present as well as the person who caused harm.

Create a shared vocabulary to interrupt bias

Simple “bias interruptions”— words or phrases that everyone uses to point out bias— can help a great deal. If everyone’s speaking the same language to interrupt bias at work, people will more quickly understand what it means and also find it much easier to speak up. A leader’s job is not to choose the words, but to get the whole team on the same page about what words they will use to flag bias during conversations and meetings.

Bias interruptions won’t work if they feel like it’s some kind of boss-mandated or HR-imposed initiative. If a leader’s team comes up with their own words or phrases rather than having the leader dictate them, they’re more likely to use them. However, a leader does need to offer some guidance. Bias interruption will backfire if the phrases chosen are themselves unconsciously biased. Words matter. Take some time with them. A leader can encourage “I” statements that invite the other person to consider the situation the way the speaker does. But it doesn’t have to be an “I” statement.

Here are ideas that have been proposed in talks and workshops I’ve led:

  • “I don’t think you meant that the way it sounded to me.”
  • “Bias interruption.”
  • “I’m throwing a flag on the field.”
  • “Yo, bias!”
  • “Bias alert.”

Some teams like a sentence not a phrase. Many have found it helpful to adopt Daniel Kahneman’s phraseology from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. If a leader has read the book and if their team is interested in reading it, the leader might choose to adopt his suggestions and teach the team to say things like: “I’d like to invite your System 2 to interrupt your System 1. Slow down and let your System 2 take control.”6

The nice thing about the language around system 1 and system 2 is that it offers an explanation for the bias and how to change it, rather than a judgement of the person who said the biased thing. It also demonstrates an understanding of the energy and effort it takes to interrupt bias. Personally, I love that language. But for some it might sound annoyingly wonky. A leader should let their team choose words that work for them.

The conversations leaders have with their teams to come up with bias interruptions may be difficult. Some may feel that phrases like “bias alert” trivialise the harm that bias does. Others may be irritated that the leader are “wasting so much time on this.” And the leader may feel stuck in the middle. Remind everyone of the goal: to come up with a shorthand phrase that allows for a quick intervention. The quicker the intervention, the more often it is likely to happen; and the more often biases get interrupted, the more the team learns. It’s a little bit like reminding one’s kids to brush their teeth every night. If the parent delivered a long lecture on dental hygiene and how plaque builds up and will give them cavities if they don’t brush, pretty soon the parent would hate saying it as much as they hate hearing it. Just saying “Teeth!” is easier on everyone and just as effective.

If a leader’s team hates the idea of the bias interruptions, the leader can ask them for other suggestions for accomplishing the same thing. The leader must be open to their ideas. But if they come up with an alternative, the leader must hold them to following through with it. And be open to the possibility that there simply may not be enough trust on the team to make this work. Then the leader will have to do more digging to find out why, and figure out how to fix it. Not only is it impossible to interrupt bias if there’s not trust–it’s impossible to collaborate effectively.

Entrepreneur Jason Mayden explains why it’s important both to make it safe to make mistakes, and also safe to point them out. He encourages people to “get beyond the fear of saying the wrong thing because you can’t get to the right thing without first making some mistakes in between.” At the same time, “I should not hide my truth to make you feel comfortable in your bias,”7 says Mayden.


1. Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Issues of Our Time). United Kingdom: W. W. Norton.
2. Fontana, F. (2019, October 12). The reasons women don’t get the feedback they need. Retrieved June 7, 2002, from
3. Correll, S., & Simard, C. (2016, April 29). Research: Vague feedback is holding women back. Retrieved June 7, 2020, from
4. Levin, S. (2016, May 02). Sexual harassment training may have reverse effect, research suggests. Retrieved June 7, 2020, from
5. Duguid, M. M., & Thomas-Hunt, M. C. (2015). Condoning stereotyping? How awareness of stereotyping prevalence impacts expression of stereotypes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 343.
6. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
7. Mayden, J. [@jasonmayden]. (n.d.) #curbsideministries [Instagram hashtag]. Retrieved from https://www.