The prejudice-busting superpower of teams
Learn the five elements that will take your team to the next level.
I showed up to my first post-college job with a diploma from an Ivy League institution, a commitment to working hard, and – shamefully – a bias against gay individuals. I politely declined lunch invitations, discounted comments, and committed other microaggressions toward gay coworkers. Born in Venezuela, I had marinated in Latin American Catholic attitudes for two decades. The belief that same-sex orientation was aberrant and problematic had seeped into my personality in the same unconscious way a Venezuelan accent and a love for arepas had.
A year into that job, however, my prejudice against individuals with a sexual orientation different from mine all but disappeared. Homosexuality became a trait I no longer judged nor was uncomfortable around, like auburn hair or extroversion.
Why did I morally evolve during that one particular year? I wish I could say that I sat on a rock for 40 days, followed a guru, or earned my transformation through my proactivity. I didn’t. Becoming more inclusive was as unwitting as my becoming prejudiced had been. The driver of my evolution was, once again, my environment. Specifically, it was my work team.
Almost a century ago, academics started suspecting that people with a prejudice against a certain group often overcame such prejudice when their work teams included members from that group, a phenomenon they called “intergroup contact theory.”
Intergroup contact theory
Popularized by scholars like Allport (1954) and Pettigrew (1998), this theory explains how prejudice between groups of people can decrease through collaborative, interdependent activities.
Since then, they’ve conducted hundreds of studies that not only prove that contact theory is generally correct but what conditions promote it. I was fortunate enough to be part of a work team that met the criteria for contact theory:
1. Diverse composition
A team will reduce prejudice that relates to the characteristics of its members. My direct supervisor, Lon, was openly gay. His presence on my team opened the door for me to transcend my prejudice against same-sex orientation. In fact, mere exposure to those one is prejudiced against often reduces those prejudices. The more I sat in meetings, visited clients and otherwise worked with Lon, the more my preconceptions of gay individuals dissolved.
2. Institutional support
Formal employer support for diverse individuals working respectfully with each other legitimizes inclusive behavior and, thus, augments the prejudice-reducing power of diverse teams. My employer’s goals and policies promoting workforce diversity, no doubt, helped me normalize working with people who, at first, felt alien to me.
3. Common goals
A team member working toward an individual goal, such as a personal sales target, will likely consider coworkers to be outside her “ingroup,” defined as the group of trusted individuals who look after her interest. Placing people outside her ingroup, in turn, has been shown to elicit prejudice toward them. Establishing team sales targets or other collective goals, on the other hand, nudges team members toward conferring ingroup status to all other team members, thus promoting inclusivity. My team of five had both collective goals and personal goals, but the first were priority.
A culture where team members routinely assist each other, as opposed to work entirely independently, drives more meaningful interactions that, in turn, drive more inclusive attitudes. I was fortunate to have a boss who modeled helpfulness, assigned us to assist each other, and rewarded us for being collaborative.
5. Equal status
Team members should have non-hierarchical relationships. You might remember, however, that Lon was my boss. Why, then, was the experience still transformative for me? While the first condition, diverse composition, is essential for work teams to promote greater inclusivity in its members, the other four are not. In fact, research finds that even work teams that fail to meet most of the bottom four criteria (but are still diverse in composition) often reduce member prejudice, albeit less effectively than those that better align with the full complement of criteria.
Employees sometimes enter the workplace infected by the discriminatory attitudes of the place from which they hail, as I once did. Fortunately, Lon demonstrated and studies confirm that leaders can free team members from their biases by applying contact theory. Its application won’t increase inclusivity in every instance, but it typically will. In sum, contact theory is the closest thing a leader has to a prejudice-busting superpower.