By: Keaton Fletcher
Meta-stereotypes are those that we think other people hold against a group. So an age meta-stereotype is what you think other people think about your age group. These stereotypes can be positive or negative. Work Science Center Network Member, Lisa Finkelstein, led a team of researchers, including fellow WSC Network Member, Hannes Zacher, in a study of how these age meta-stereotypes might lead to outcomes like conflict, avoidance, or work engagement. The researchers asked 185 U.S. employees to complete surveys every day for five consecutive work days. When people held negative old (but not young) age meta-stereotypes they felt higher levels of a motivating type of stress, called challenge reactions (i.e., you feel like this is a stressor you can overcome). In other words, when people felt as though others thought their age group held the negative stereotypical qualities of older adults (e.g., technophobic, slow, narrow minded), regardless of their actual age, they viewed that as a challenge that was stressful but could be overcome. When people held negative young (but not old) age meta-stereotypes the felt higher levels of a de-motivating type of stress, called threat reactions (i.e., you feel like this cannot be overcome and can harm your self-identity). In other words, when people felt that others thought their age group held negative stereotypically young traits (e.g., inexperienced, lazy, immature), regardless of their actual age, they viewed that as a threat to their core identity. Positive age meta-stereotypes had no effects.
When people had higher challenge or threat reactions, they were more likely to engage in conflict at work and were also more likely to avoid interacting with others at work. When people had high levels of challenge reactions or low levels of threat reactions, they were more likely to feel engaged with their work. Interestingly, people who are high in a set of traits called core self-evaluations (i.e., self-esteem, self-efficacy, emotional stability, sense of control) they were less likely to respond to negative old age meta-stereotypes with challenge reactions.
Taken together these results offer an interesting narrative about individuals’ perceptions of others’ stereotypes. Specifically, individuals who feel as though others hold a negative view of their age group that is similar to stereotypical older workers, they view that as a challenge and are more likely to engage in conflict, avoid interacting with others, but also to feel more engaged at work. This is less the case, however, for those workers who hold themselves in high regard. Workers who feel as if others view their age group in a way that is similar to the negative stereotypes of younger workers, are more likely to view this as a threat and are thus also more likely to engage in conflict and avoid interactions with others, but do not see the positive boost in work engagement. It is also worth noting that when individuals thought others had positive views about their age group that were similar to positive stereotypes about older or younger workers, that had no effect on their reactions or behavioral outcomes. Further, younger workers were more likely to feel that others held negative views of their age group than older workers, and this includes both negative stereotypically old and stereotypically young traits. Companies should therefore take steps to reduce negative stereotypes, particularly of younger workers, or provide resources to individuals to combat the negative outcomes of feeling as if others have a negative view of them.