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What happens after you confront prejudice in the workplace? That depends on whether or not you believe people can change
The best organisations are putting a lot of effort into making diversity work. But getting people from different backgrounds to get along harmoniously and respectfully is not straightforward because people carry the social stereotypes and biases of their culture into organisations.
So what happens when one colleague makes a casual remark to another that exhibits overt bias? We’re not talking systemic bullying but everyday offensiveness, ordinary interactions. For example, imagine you’re a woman working in finance and a male colleague expresses the belief that women are too emotional to be good managers.
Aneeta Rattan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS), was curious to find out what happens in that moment – and afterwards. When someone makes a biased statement to you at work, does it mean you’re inevitably going to have a negative outlook, feel less like you belong, and experience less satisfaction at work? Or, might how you respond – whether you confront the bias or remain silent – shape your ability to cope with this negative experience?
In short, no and yes. But, as Dr Rattan’s research – carried out in collaboration with Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University – demonstrates, your outcomes depend upon whether you believe the other person can change. If you think people are malleable and can develop over time, you have what’s known as a growth mindset. If you think a leopard can’t change its spots, that’s a fixed mindset. These fundamental assumptions about people shape our goals, perceptions, and reactions.
Let’s look at how this plays out when it comes to tackling stereotypes. People targeted by prejudice consistently say they want to confront it (which in this context simply means verbally expressing your disagreement with the biased statement). Evidence shows that those of us who manage to challenge bias-ridden statements generally feel better for it.
“People who want to confront but feel they can’t tend to experience more negative self-directed emotion. They can feel badly about themselves, they can feel guilty and ashamed,” says Dr Rattan.
People who can envisage change in another person and who challenge bias fare better. At the start of the research, Dr Rattan and her colleagues theorised that those holding growth mindsets perhaps see pointing out the prejudice as a starting point. “They may see it as a catalyst for change,” Dr Rattan explains.
Dr Rattan carried out four studies to test the relationship between how people reacted to prejudice and their mindsets and how this impacted on their subsequent outlook. The first two were correlational studies, the next a carefully controlled experiment, while the fourth used real-world data. “I wanted to see how these dynamics play out in real organisations and to find out whether confronting bias helps or hurts women and minorities,” she says. “Is it good or bad for the self?”
In the first study, participants (all of them women and minorities) completed a questionnaire assessing their beliefs about people. It included questions such as, “Everyone, no matter who they are, can significantly change their basic characteristics.” Then they read a scenario describing an experience of workplace prejudice. They were asked to imagine they had received an exciting summer internship at a prestigious company and were going for coffee with another new intern, a white male. He remarks, “I’m really surprised at the types of people who are working here, with all of this ‘diversity’ hiring – women, minorities, foreigners – I wonder how long this company will stay on top?”
The participants then had to opt for one of four possible responses, one of which was the “confronting item”: “I would calmly but firmly communicate my point of view to try to educate him.” Next they read that the perpetrator’s behaviour didn’t change: a few weeks later, they heard them on the phone making similar comments. How surprised would they feel? (In a twist on this, a different set of participants were presented with evidence that the person’s behaviour really had shifted and were asked how far they believed that his attitudes had changed.)
The results supported Dr Rattan’s hypothesis: “When people both hold a growth mindset and confront, they exhibit a more positive outlook on the person who expressed bias. They’re surprised by someone who reiterates bias and they’re more likely to believe someone who claims to have changed. However, if minorities and women have growth mindsets but don’t speak out to address prejudice, they have an equally negative outlook as those who hold fixed mindsets, regardless of how they respond,” she says.
The second study explored the potential consequences more broadly by measuring women’s anticipated sense of belonging and workplace satisfaction after a similar scenario. Across all the studies, participants with a fixed mindset showed relatively more negative outlooks. However, those who held growth mindsets and were told they had confronted the biased statement exhibited a more positive outlook, and due to this they reported relatively higher sense of belonging and workplace satisfaction.
Finally, she conducted a real-world study of African-American employees, to make absolutely sure that the research was relevant to actual employees and organisations. A total of 98 African-American adults were recruited through a paid online survey panel. After a demographics questionnaire and a mindset scale, the participants were asked to recall and describe their most recent experience with explicit prejudice in their workplace and their descriptions were meticulously analysed.
“Your speaking out can help you – it’s not about doing a public service that leaves you feeling alone and upset, it actually can be good for you.”
The results backed up the previous studies: African-American employees who chose to confront and held more of a growth mindset reported believing that their response changed the person who expressed bias. In turn, these positive expectations predicted improved current attitudes towards the perpetrator and higher workplace satisfaction overall. “By contrast, those who had a growth mindset but stayed silent and those who had a fixed mindset, regardless of whether they spoke out or didn’t, had an equally negative outlook on the perpetrator or bias and a lower workplace satisfaction.”
What this means, says Dr Rattan, is that in some circumstances at least, challenging bias benefits you as an individual. “Your speaking out can help you – it’s not about doing a public service that leaves you feeling alone and upset, it actually can be good for you.”
“If you view someone through the lens of, ‘They are not going to change’ and they communicate the message that women don’t belong in the workplace, let’s say, you might just think, ‘Why bother? I need to get away from this person, they’re never going to see me as an equal.’ But if you view that core character as malleable and able to change it gives you a tiny sliver of hope that you could engage with them a little bit more and spark a change.”
Dr Rattan points out that workplace bias can stem from deeply-held beliefs or uninterrogated beliefs. “Sometimes people don’t even know they’re communicating bias. Maybe no-one’s ever pushed back on that and asked them to look at the evidence. That’s why interpersonal confrontation has the potential to be effective. If you view them as able to change, this behaviour empowers you, it gives you a chance to change things.”
What can organisations take away from this research? “Of course, their first job is to ensure that biased statements or behaviours are not happening in the workplace. At the same time, leaders who want to effectively support their minority and women employees could work to foster a positive organisational context, where people feel safe to confront and where employees know they will be expected to grow and adapt – not just in their professional abilities or performance goals but in their understandings of the world and their biases.
“It’s possible that a growth-mindset environment could encourage the best possible outcomes for stigmatised individuals after this kind of negative experience.”
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