If you are a minority, one of the vexing problems can be figuring out if you belong. Feedback can be suspect. For instance, there's good evidence that Whites display a positivity bias in feedback, giving more positive feedback to Blacks than Whites for identical performance. But there is also certainly prejudice in the world, so some feedback to Blacks arises from that prejudice rather than from performance deficits. So...that creates "attributional ambiguity." Is that good feedback because of actual performance or because of positivity bias? Is the bad feedback due to actual performance or prejudice? This ambiguity can lead to some perverse consequences. For instance, Jennifer Crocker and Brenda Major have found that Blacks who can attribute positive feedback to positivity bias actually show a drop in self-esteem after receiving positive feedback. (They also find that the ability to attribute negative feedback to prejudice keeps self-esteem from dropping after negative feedback.)
If you can't trust feedback, how can you know if you fit in? And if you don't know whether you fit in, will that affect your work?
That leads to a terrific talk I heard last night here in San Diego (at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology). Perhaps interventions that make minority members feel that they belong will help their performance. Greg Walton of Stanford described two studies on this topic.
In the first, first-year students were given a one hour intervention in which older students described overcoming their challenges at belonging. They said it took awhile, but they eventually found friends as good as their high school friends. And there were struggles in the classroom, but they eventually learned from them. Other first year students were randomly assigned to a control group. They followed the students through to senior year. The GPA for White students increased over time, regardless of condition. But the GPA for Black students in the control condition was flat. ; Can a one hour intervention make a difference in that? Yup. Black students who got that one hour belongingness intervention had their GPA go up over time, too. Compared to the control condition, over 70% of the racial difference in GPA in senior year disappeared in the group that got the belongingness intervention. Oh, and that one hour intervention also eliminated differences between Black and White students in self-reported health in senior year, to boot. OK, another "oh. Walton over several days asked people about the hassles they experienced that day and about how much belonging they felt. For Whites, there was no relation of having hassles with feelings of belonging. (Bad days didn't make them feel they did not belong.) For Blacks in the control, there was a pretty hefty relationship. On days with hassles, they felt much less like they belonged. But....Blacks in the belongingness condition showed no correlation. They felt no less belonging on days with hassles than days without.
One hour can change behavior over the course of years.
The second study examined women in engineering programs. Some got a similar belongingness intervention.Some got an "affirmation" intervention, in which older students talked about dealing with their struggles by recalling their values and acting on them. A third set of students was randomly assigned to a control condition. Both the belongingness intervention and the affirmation intervention boosted the GPA of women engineers. (If I recall correctly, the interventions didn't do anything for guys.) Interestingly, the interventions changed social networks. Compared to the control condition, the women in the belongingness group developed more friendships with male engineers. Compared to the control group, the women in the affirmation group developed more friendships with non-engineers. And these friendship pattern changes partially accounted for why the interventions boosted GPA.
It's a daunting world out there. Often it's hard to know if we belong, and to know if we can trust feedback about how we are doing. Part of the answer to that is to give as unambiguous feedback as possible so that the feedback is clearly tied to performance and not attributable to either positivity bias or prejudice. But maybe another part is to have those of us who have felt that we didn't belong tell those younger that yup, we felt that way. And we found friends. And we learned from our struggles and improved our work.
It gets better.