Defeating Stereotype Threat in Engineers

In the Mind Matters blog at Scientific American magazine there is an interesting review of studies about Stereotype Threat, where the performance of people is measurably affected by their own perceptions of stereotypes. Put simply, if you tell someone from a pink skinned race that his kind are not good at, say, break dancing and he will perform badly on any standard scientific test of break dancing ability. See "The Choke Factor, How Stereotypes Affect Performance" at

All this does is confirm scientifically what has been known to us all through folk tales since way back: people really do believe all the idiotic stereotypes about themselves and they let it hold them back. If you can find a way to break the spell and liberate people from their own stereotypes they can achieve much more than they ever expected.

There is actually a practical use for this knowledge and I have used it myself on many occasions. Just to give one example, a few years back I was asked to teach a bunch of engineers how to make presentations. The audience consisted entirely of people who were not used to making presentations, they were all terrified of the thought -- one even ran away during a break -- and they all believed the old folk legend that engineers can't communicate.

For an audience with some familiarity with presenting skills and basically lacking in technique the normal approach would be to ask them all to make a presentation then give feedback. Typically this feedback is to point out problems, flaws and errors, sometimes aided by a video camera to record and amplify all the mistakes. But with this group I sensed that the problem was not technical or strategic, it was overcoming the stereotype threat barrier.

To address this need I reversed the normal approach. I asked everyone to make a presentation but I secretly steered them onto the right path by making them choose from a list of topics that ensured their presentation would have a clear goal. Then during and after the presentations I pointed out no errors and made no negative comments, but I did look for at least one good thing in every presentation. This sounds like a risky approach for the coach -- you need to be very sure of your own presentation skills -- but in my experience there is always something good if you know how to find it.

My goal was to give people confidence and it worked very well. Afterwards one woman came to tell me that she had discovered for the first time that she knew how to present. And maybe it wasn't perfect but once you get past this barrier the learning curve is all downhill.

In performance improvement identifying the real problem is often the key to success. Just because someone has poor presentation skills does not mean that you need to teach them those skills. Sometimes it's enough to show them that the stereotype is wrong, and that they really can do it. After that they can quickly pick up the practical skills.


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