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A study led in part by a NEOMA researcher, Urszula Lagowska, has looked at how different leadership styles affect candidates from minority backgrounds at job interviews. The research aimed to demonstrate that a manager’s leadership style can alleviate the stress of stereotype threat, which frustrates the diversity targets set by some firms.

While many organisations are doing their utmost to meet diversity objectives, members of minority groups are still reporting that their ethnicity restricts their employment opportunities.

The NEOMA researcher and her colleagues looked at how different management styles affect the candidates from minority groups perform during recruitment interviews. A manager’s leadership style, they argue, provides insight into how job applicants will be treated if they join the ranks of a company. Does it hold back diversity or does it act as a springboard? Before answering this question, we need to know more about the challenges facing the two parties sitting around the table: the future manager and the potential recruit.

Motivating the troops: everyone has their own way of doing things

There is no such thing as a team without a leader. And more often than not, this leader knows how to motivate the people around them so that they implement a company’s plans properly. The scientific literature often focuses on two approaches to leadership based on moral values: the “ethical” manager aims to improve the moral conduct of the people working for them. This type of leader sets the ethics-related rules for everyone, relying on a system of reward and punishment. Each link in the chain works on behalf of the group and for the benefit of the team. The second type of manager, known as an “authentic” leader, is guided more by their internal moral compass. They insist on the importance of the personal development of their employees, together with self-awareness, learning through experience and being true to oneself regardless of any external pressure.

In the head of minority candidates

The researchers examined how job applicants performed at recruitment interviews held with the two types of manager identified above. They noted that the framework lends itself to the expression of stereotype threat. In other words, minorities are afraid that other people will look at them through a prism of prejudices linked to their membership group – and, worse still, they might confirm these same prejudices. This stereotype threat triggers physiological stress reactions, such as high blood pressure and cortisol levels. In fact, the impact on an applicant’s cognitive resources might be so severe that they may lose interest in the position to which are applying. This effect may even be so strong that some individuals avoid applying altogether for jobs in various organisations since they are afraid of being treated unfairly.

Recruitment interviews: the little-known effects of leadership

In general terms, the stress levels of anyone who has ever had a job interview are influenced by the attitude of the individuals sitting on the other side of the table. When it comes to members of minority groups, who are additionally aware of negative stereotypes about them, how does the leadership style of the manager or team leader heighten or reduce the stereotype threat? The researchers conducted experiments in the field in an effort to answer this question. They monitored how Black residents living in Brazilian favelas performed in recruitment interviews with companies where the employees were largely White.

The outcomes show that when a leader is White, displaying ethical leadership focused on community norms helps reduce the threat to Black applicants. The norms ensure that there is a degree of fairness and predictability in the team management, irrespective of the origins of its members. As a result, Black candidates are more disposed to apply for a job. With a Black leader, however, it is the authentic approach that lowers the threat because t Black candidates can identify with the leader and are motivated to form a close relationship with them.

When optimisation isn’t synonymous with diversification

The research opens up new solutions for companies keen to create fair recruitment conditions that bolster the performance of racial minorities. The researchers suggest that organisations aspiring to diversify their ranks should fine-tune their leaders’ behaviour during the recruitment process. Minority candidates would then be in a position to take career decisions without being weighed down by worries about their identity.

In broader terms, this research takes issue with the use of automated recruitment tools. A host of companies are turning to these solutions to optimise their selection processes and to avoid accusations of bias; and yet, an interpersonal approach tailored to the profile of applicants would seem more likely to serve the goal of diversification. Last but not least, the research is relevant to racial and ethnic minorities. The stereotype threat is also an issue for other social groups, such as women or immigrants, where the impact of leaderships styles awaits further research.

Find out more

Lagowska, Urszula & Sobral, Filipe & Jacob, Jorge & Hafenbrack, Andrew & Goldszmidt, Rafael. (2023). Following community norms or an internal compass? The role of prospective leaders’ social category membership in the differential effects of authentic and ethical leadership on stereotype threat Journal of Applied Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037.