The term stereotype threat refers to situations in which individuals are, or feel themselves to be, at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. It’s a well-documented phenomenon, particularly in academic and corporate environments. Studies show that these situations result in increased heart rate and decreased concentrations. Ironically, the fear of confirming the negative stereotype leads individuals to perform badly, thereby fulfilling the stereotype due to fear of fulfilling the stereotype.
There are subtle organizational mechanisms that create obstacles for women and people of color in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Personal and institutional bias favors people in the dominant group, giving them the benefit of the doubt, often without realizing it. At the same time, those who are not members of the dominant group have to repeatedly prove themselves. One of the most insidious factors pushing women and people of color out of professional leadership positions is the near constant anxiety caused by stereotype threat.
Don’t let yourself be defined by other’s perceptions of you; there is a way to take control of your image. You can use your personal brand to help you overcome stereotype threat. Start by identifying the stereotypes that others are likely to impose on you upon first meeting. For Asian Americans, that might be “meek” or “passive.” For women, that might be “pushover” or “flaky.” Now, figure out how you can turn those unflattering, and untrue, assumptions about you into an image that is true and works for you. For example, women are often dismissed professionally because their compassion is seen as a weakness when, in fact, having good people skills, such as compassion, is an invaluable strength. Know your value and lean in.
Rewire your thinking from a fixed identity mindset to a growth mindset. People often get stuck thinking that they must simply play the hand they’re dealt. Rather than thinking about your identity and your situation as the result of circumstance and genetics, understand that your potential is infinite. If you want to be successful, you have to believe that you can be. What does this success you look like? Picture her/him and work towards that image.
You must fine tune the resonance between your brand and your reputation. This means identifying the gap, if there is one, and deliberately working to change perceptions about you. If any of the negative assumptions about you are true, tackle them first and actively work to change them. If you are a woman who is submissive at work, work on being more vocal, taking risks, and asserting yourself.
Disprove the stereotypes by showing up and being a whole person and not a label. The best way to disprove stereotypes is to replace people’s ideas of you with the real thing, with your personal brand. Speak your mind, offer unique solutions, and boldly stake out a position that works for you. You are actively redefining yourself. Make sure that you do not repeat the ideas of others. Bring something new to the discussion and, slowly but surely, perceptions of you will adjust accordingly.