Stereotype Threat and Your Inner Game
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Have you ever felt like there is a fight going on in your mind? Rest assured, this is a common experience. According to Timothy Gallwey, we all have at least two opposite voices within us, you can imagine them as two selves – Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the louder self that is anxious, tense, self-doubting while Self 2 is the quieter self that is calm, accepting and believes in one’s potential. Self 1 seeks to control Self 2 to make us cautious when we navigate changes and uncertainties, but it can also inhibit Self 2’s innate ability to learn and grow. In this article, we introduce one way in which Self 1 might be triggered, often without us being aware – the stereotype threat. We will also recommend what coaches can do to enable coachees to play the inner game in ways that allow us to unleash our full potential.


What Is Stereotype Threat?

In our society, stereotypes abound. While they might be helpful in categorising and making sense of new information, stereotypes often lead to erroneous and over-simplified assumptions about groups and about ourselves. Stereotypes are particularly dangerous when we fall prey to stereotype threat, which is when we internalise stereotypes about specific social groups we interact with, and in return act according to what these stereotypes say, confirming a negative stereotype. This is how stereotype threat might occur: Self 2 is relaxed and focussed in unleashing our potential. However, Self 1 is prompted by the stereotype and gets anxious and judgemental about our ability that it interferes with and hampers our performance.


They Affect You Without You Noticing

There is a common belief that males perform better than females in maths. In a classic study conducted in 1999, Spencer and colleagues found out that girls perform worse than boys in a math test only when they are put in the same room. When girls and boys took the test separately, there were no differences between their performance. It seems that, by having both genders in the same room, it may have incited the Self 1 within girls that they are not on par with males in math competition, and it interfered with their Self 2 who allowed relaxed, focussed display of ability when Self 1 was not prompted.


What is more interesting, perhaps alarming is that the trigger of Self 1 can be even subtler than that. Historically, African Americans are stereotyped to be less intelligent than White Americans, and there have been many explanations as to the reasons for African Americans’ lower score on these tests. Steele and Aronson found in 1995 that when researchers told participants that they were working on some ‘problem-solving tasks’ instead of ‘intelligence test’, the differences between races instantly became unobservable. This could have been the result of Self 2 being uninhibited. It is worth noting how alert our Self 1 could be – African Americans might have internalised the stereotype so readily that the mere cue of ‘intelligence test’ could induce the stereotype threat.


3 Ways How Coaching Can Help

Of course organisations can and should create an environment that encourages a more critical approach to stereotypes, and a more open-minded attitude to varieties within social groups. But the other key concern is: how to perform at our own best despite triggers of stereotype threats? Here are a few ways in which coaching can turn our inner game around in ways that overcome doubts and harness our full potential:

(1) Be aware of and curious about the voices: When you hear voices like ‘I can’t excel in an engineering team because I am female’, be aware of these and be open about them, coach yourself with some of these questions: Where do these voices come from? Who told you that? What makes you believe in what they say? Noticing what is triggering your Self 1 is the first step to reducing its interference.

(2) Reality check: Self 1 often inflates areas of imperfections, inadequacies, and filters out evidence that encourage belief and trust in ourselves. This could make us focus only on our deficiencies, neglecting the reality. Coaches often take pauses with coachees to check whether what they say about themselves are true: What concrete feedback they have received (not what they think people think about them)? The question “What would your friend/ a random stranger say about the things you have accomplished?” often evokes different responses from the ones coachee naturally give about their performance and effectiveness.

(3) Rewrite your narrative: After identifying and checking the voices, coaches explore with coachees the possibility of changing their narratives about the circumstances they face. For example, instead of framing working as the only female in the engineering team as competition with male colleagues, a coach might prompt coachees to separate inner beliefs from facts and to gain clarity about one’s values and purpose – what made you join the field of engineering in the first place – and the relevance of ‘competition with male counterparts’ in this pursuit. Rewriting our narrative does not only direct us away from falling prey to stereotype threat, more importantly, it refocuses our energy on our purpose, i.e. why we do what we do in the first place.


Are you aware of how stereotypes have been affecting your inner game and those of your colleagues? Share your thoughts and stories with us in the comment section below! Stereotype is just one type of prompt that could activate our Self 1 – there are many others. In HCC’s Master Coach Practitioner Programme, we explore many more ways for coaches to enable their coachees to unleash their full potential. Click here to know more about the programme or reach out at to know more about how coaching works for you.

Stereotype Threat and Your Inner Game
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