The “tightrope” metaphor refers to the narrow range of behavior seen as acceptable for people from non-dominant and stigmatized groups compared to the leeway afforded to those from dominant groups. The tightrope bias is typically discussed in application to the experience of women in the workplace. In particular, it helps explain the unique obstacles women face when aspiring to leadership. However, the tightrope bias can apply to any stereotyped group – for example, first-generation professionals or immigrants. Neurodivergent employees can also be significantly and negatively impacted by it.
In a classic example, in most workplaces, women are expected to be “strong” but never “aggressive.” The task is a tightrope walk because what is seen as “assertive” in men is interpreted as aggressive in women. The “strong and assertive” is a very narrow space between a “pushover” and “aggressive.” Women of color may have an even narrower tightrope to navigate, and other intersectionalities – including neurodiversity – make the range of “acceptable” behaviors even smaller. This leaves individuals with fewer and fewer behavioral options that would not lead to some form of social penalty.
Doomed If You Do, Doomed If You Don’t
There are several mechanisms through which the tightrope bias can harm individual outcomes. First, it can increase the “stress tax” on stereotyped groups by creating impossible choices. Decisions about daily situations and behaviors become “lose-lose,” “doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t” choices.
For example, someone who disclosed ADHD to receive accommodations such as flexibility in deadlines or help with certain tasks may face a dilemma. If that person stays supremely organized and always prepared by putting in extra effort, coworkers might conclude that perhaps the person does not, in fact, have ADHD, and is playing the system. However, if that person shows signs of inattention or a lack of organization, these instances are likely to be scrutinized and selectively remembered.
For an autistic employee, acting in stereotypically “autistic” ways, for example, by not participating in social chit-chat, would likely confirm negative assumptions about the lack of social skills. This would likely bar the individual from advancement or professional development opportunities. It may even be used to “justify” bullying and exclusion. On the other hand, participating in the chit-chat may result in accusations of “not really being autistic” and the refusal of needed accommodations or support.
Awareness of these stereotypes is likely to reduce the willingness of neurodivergent talent to disclose, which may, in turn, lead to performance difficulties that could have been otherwise avoided. Even if the performance does not suffer noticeably or immediately, the stress of masking, anxiety, and vigilance is likely to take a physical and psychological toll on the individual.
From Stereotypes To Discrimination
Anxiety about being stereotyped (associated with overgeneralized or inaccurate, often negative assumptions about one’s group) is grounded in the reality of discrimination based on those stereotypes. For example, research by Joan Williams and her colleagues demonstrates that stereotypes and biases impact supervisors’ evaluations of marginalized employees. Supervisors tend to look for personal characteristics that either support stereotypes or strongly contradict them when evaluating employees from stigmatized groups. However, these characteristics do not play a role in evaluating other employees. For example, a manager may scrutinize an autistic employee’s oral communication, although most position-relevant communication occurs in writing. As another example, the written communication of a dyslexic employee will likely be scrutinized even if there are no issues with employee performance.
Supervisory evaluation is only one mechanism of potential discrimination. For example, if an organization uses a 360 approach to performance evaluation, ratings and comments provided by colleagues or reports/subordinates may also reflect tightrope bias. Moreover, the bias may impact the treatment one receives from colleagues and direct reports, and the resulting behaviors stemming from the trauma of ostracism or bullying can further support stereotypes.
Combatting The Tightrope Bias
The tightrope bias typically impacts judgments automatically, with limited individuals’ awareness. While increasing awareness of the bias via training can improve decision-making, under stress and time pressure, coworkers are likely to revert to biased automatic behavior. Systemic interventions should aim to address the awareness of the tightrope bias on all levels of the organization. In addition, fairness should be facilitated via procedures developed to maximize organizational justice and the validity of evaluations.
1. Training is often the first “line of defense” against bias. Unfortunately, some forms of diversity and inclusion training are ineffective, and some even increase bias. However, there are more effective training approaches.
Training programs using scenarios of everyday exclusion, inequitable expectations, and extra scrutiny applied to stigmatized groups can help employees and supervisors develop more inclusive habits. For example, training participants could analyze an example in which the same behavior is seen as neutral or even positive in members of dominant groups, but pathologized in individuals from stigmatized neurodivergent groups. For example, an allistic individual insisting on using data in decision-making could be seen as prudent, but an autistic person insisting on the same could be labeled “unreasonable” or “lacking flexibility.”
In addition, training that includes exposure to counter-stereotypical information and practicing reframing of supposed “negatives” as positives may help reduce prejudice and improve interactions. For example, discussing examples of autistic empathy and practicing reframing “lack of social interest” as “prioritizing work” or “impulsivity” as “passion” can help develop more inclusive thinking. Training facilitated by neurodivergent professionals can also support breaking the stereotypes.
2. Debiasing personnel forms, such as performance evaluations or promotion recommendations, is crucial to supporting equity and combatting the tightrope bias.
Instead of open-ended prompts that are easily influenced by stereotypes, de-biased forms include specific job-relevant competencies. These competencies should be well-defined skills, not personality characteristics. In addition, each rating should be supported by multiple (e.g., 3) pieces of evidence. Finally, evaluation rubrics with clearly defined levels of skill development also support objectivity.
3. Developing a culture of emotional inclusion can help broaden the range of personal styles seen as appropriate in the workplace. This, in turn, should combat the rigid “tightrope” requirements. Embracing the principles of emotional inclusion means not judging emotional expressions and checking our cultural and personal biases regarding what is “acceptable.” Expectations of professionalism should not exclude sensitivity or occasional crying – for anyone. Expectations of productivity can be met regardless of “intense,” “quiet,” or “reserved” personality style. Most jobs do not require a specific emotional profile. Power-based expectations that people from marginalized groups must limit the expression of their humanity to please those with more power, underlying the tightrope bias, should be replaced by holistic acceptance of a full range of human behavior that does not harm others.
Authenticity at work has many benefits. The tightrope bias robs people from marginalized and stigmatized groups of these benefits, extracts a high toll of masking, and limits creativity and innovation. Awareness of this bias and addressing it to support true inclusion and belonging is an important duty of responsible organizations.