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The incompetence stereotype: “Black people have less leadership competence”

Monday, April 16, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

You know. Black folks. They are not as intelligent, determined or decisive. They just are not good leaders. When a black leader performs poorly–this stereotype is used to explain the poor performance. But, when a black leader performs well–this stereotype is less useful. Then, we are likely to attribute “compensatory attributes” to the exceptional black leader–”oh, he has ‘survival skills’” or “she is especially warm”–rather than attributing the individual’s success to actual leadership competence. The core competency is still not recognized by the success– it is explained away instead.

These stereotypes are like any other–they allow a simplistic cognitive shortcut that results in a leap to a negative evaluation based on skin color rather than actual behavior. Researchers wanted to test this belief and so looked at press reactions to college football quarterbacks (31 black and 82 white). They asked coders (who knew nothing about the purpose of the study) to rate media reactions to the quarterbacks as positive or negative and to assess the leadership interpretation of the media content (i.e., competence or compensatory adjectives or adverbs).

They found (no surprises here) that the use of the incompetence stereotype or the compensatory talents depended on whether the quarterback won or lost. Further, while different stereotypes were used when black athletes won or lost–the same was not true for white athletes.

When black quarterbacks lost, they were more likely described as an incompetent leader than losing white quarterbacks. When winning, there was no difference between descriptions of the black and white quarterbacks.

When black quarterbacks won, they were often praised for athleticism–much more often than were white quarterbacks.

In other words, black success is perceived as coming from superior athletic skills, while white success comes from smarts and leadership ability. The researchers (publishing in a management journal) say that leadership and organizational success for blacks is less tied to leadership ability than to perceptions that they are lucky or have some compensatory attribute that stands in for actual competence. They recommend black leaders challenge these sorts of stereotypes by showing examples of successful leadership and perhaps even circulating “individuating information” about their personal accomplishments and skill sets in order to provide context.

In the law firm, you need to look at metrics first–when comparing a black partner and a white partner with equivalent metrics–are you rating the black partner lower? This indicates a possible issue with down-grading the black leader because of skin color. If there seems to be a gap in the leadership skills of gifted black attorneys or paralegals, take a second look. Consider whether the problem is also influenced by a culture that expects gifts of one kind, but is resistant to seeing talents of other types. Or coworkers who make minority leadership more difficult.  Pay attention to making your firm evaluative scale measures the concrete and behavioral rather than the subjective (and thus prone to biases).

We write a lot about bias here. And whether that bias is about gender, age, race, disability, or something else–what’s important is recognizing it and choosing to act differently. The question is not if we have blind spots. We all do. The question is if we are able to outsmart those blind spots. This research provides some specific recommendations for outsmarting your blind spots when it comes to the performance evaluation of your African American professionals.

Carton, 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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