At work, cultural bias beats out good intentions

Author: Nancy Johnson


Diana Jimeno-Ingrum, assistant professor of management, joined the faculty at the Mendoza College of Business in October 2008. The native of Lima, Peru, holds a Ph.D. in human resource management and industrial relations from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She conducts research on organizational behavior as well as innovation and creativity in organizations. A paper in which she is lead author, "Stereotypes of Latinos and Whites: Do they Guide Evaluations in Diverse Work Groups?" was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. It includes some surprising findings about cultural biases.

What are your areas of interest?

When I did my master's degree in psychology, I found social psychology to be extremely interesting. There is a lot of interest in research that is practical. Looking at questions that are related to social psychology in the business world was my primary focus. In particular, I was interested in diversity issues, Latinos versus Caucasians, perhaps because of my own background.

What did you learn from your "Stereotypes of Latinos and Whites" paper?

Previous researchers found that minorities within groups or teams end up contributing less to the team's work or product than usual or compared to Caucasians who are majority individuals.  I thought this was interesting, because in the business world we are seeing this influx of cultural minorities—Latinos, Asians and African Americans. The researchers had not separated numerical minorities from racial or ethnic minorities, meaning whether the person is the only one of his kind in the group, or whether he is of a societal minority group. My co-authors and I did a study that put together majorities and minorities and compared them to numerical minorities and societal minorities. We examined whether stereotypes of Latinos as less warm and less competent than Caucasians affected perceptions of individuals.

We conducted a study of interacting groups in which half of the groups had three white members and one Latino member. The other half of the groups had three Latino members and one white member. Groups worked together on a decision-making task, and then each member privately rated each other's competence and warmth.

We found that Latino members were evaluated as less competent and less warm than whites in both majority-white and majority-Latino groups. Whites received the most favorable ratings in majority-Latino groups, while Latinos received the least favorable ratings in majority-white groups. Numerical-minority Latinos were rated the lowest.

How do you interpret these findings?

Basic research would predict that we are instinctively prone to prefer the group with the higher social status.  The studies seem to show that even Latinos, unfortunately, have stereotypes about their own in-group. The status of a social group tends to matter more than the numerical representation.

It is unfortunate that this is happening. If I had just one take-away from the findings of this study, it would be that knowledge is key: that  no matter how well meaning we are, no matter how we want to remain objective, we need to be aware of those biases and the stereotypes that are conjured up when it comes to these interactions.  

What research are you conducting on creativity?

I am studying whether diversity in the workplace leads to a more creative product. The thought is that a diverse workplace is likely to lead to more creative outcomes because you have divergent thinking from people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. I found there is very little research other than anecdotal evidence. I decided to study whether the more diverse the population, the more creative we can be.

There's a relationship between information exchange and creativity. Creativity comes through talking with others, exchanging information. How would your knowledge mix with my knowledge? It has to be through communication and how much we communicate. I looked at the amount of information exchanged and whether the demographic background of individuals with whom the subject exchanged information mattered for creativity.

The arguments in past research were that work-related information exchange is what really leads to creativity. I looked at whether non-work related information exchange--what you did last weekend or what your children are doing-- really affects our creativity in the workplace. If you have a lot of social exchange, it would seem to help creativity because individuals feel that if they trade social information, that means they had support from their coworkers and supervisors, which may make them more likely to go beyond their regular work duties. Which type of communication makes you more likely to create an innovative product? 

Did you find that social interactions at work stimulate creativity?

Maybe it makes you a more creative parent, a more creative gardener, but the non-work information exchange was detrimental to work creativity. My theory is that the time you spend talking about social matters at work takes away from the time that you spend talking about work matters. Work-related communication affected creativity in a positive manner, but only to a certain limit.  For non-work communication, there is a straight negative relationship to creativity, meaning the more you communicated with others in the workplace about non-work issues – what baseball game you watched, your vacation plans – the more your creativity was hurt. 

Next, I want to look at the diversity effects, and whether someone has more satisfaction working with diverse individuals or with individuals who are like themselves.