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Helping to Ameliorate Stereotype Expectations as Consulting Psychologists: The Short Man Syndrome


What to do when someone uses your height against you...

One of the most important skills a consulting psychologist must hone includes being able to deal with resistance in all of its forms. A blatant form of resistance exists when a client, or representative from the client firm, initiates a personal attack on the consultant in an effort to resist change and protect the status quo (Block, 2011).

When a personal attack is expected in the workplace, this may take the form of a stereotype threat, or the fear that performance and ability will be judged based on that stereotype, which has been shown to diminish the executive function, and can result in underperformance, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (Johns, Inzlicht, & Schmader, 2008; Brown, 2001).

One example the author, Dr. Josh, has personally experienced in his life has been the persistent negative stereotype of being a short man, and how this has previously threatened his status as a leader.

The following research points to an empirically based theoretical foundation for explaining the possible cause of this negative stereotype, what the scientific data actually states in regard to short stature and quality of life, and how these elements can be utilized to assist in ameliorating stereotypical expectations, its associated resistance, and advance the consulting engagement further.

An Evolutionary Psychology Perspective

Although Josh stands at approximately five foot six inches, which may be construed as a “normal” height, there has been a persistent, and seemingly illogical, connection made with men’s overall stature, as measured by height, and its association with power or status in the workplace (Murray & Schmitz, 2011).

For example, after working for some time as a young man in an upscale restaurant, the position of bartender became available, which was known as a coveted position, and a promotion for a server. At the time, Josh was one of the highest performers in the server position, and so he offered himself as a candidate for the open bartender position.

The general manager (GM) at the time immediately responded by stating that Josh was too short to be a bartender. When pressed further, the GM justified his statement by pointing to the height of the bar itself, where “top shelf” liquor was kept behind the bar, at the highest point on the wall.

Why would someone in a position of power state something so illogical, and be adamant about their logic?

One possible explanation comes from the work of Murray and Schmitz (2011), who postulated this behavior to stem from both social and biological effects, where the environment helps only to explain part of this phenomenon.

Under the framework of evolutionary psychology, the authors put forward the use of stature as a measure of status to derive from the hunter-gatherer era, in an effort to promote survival, with the link between stature and social rank being strongly, and positively associated, a prominent distinction found in several other types of species as well (Murray & Schmitz, 2011).

The authors argue this link continues to persist in the modern human species, and conducted two studies that supported their hypotheses that global individuals prefer political leaders who are taller, and that taller leaders will have a greater sense of self-efficacy in response to this preference, which will foster greater interest in pursuing a leadership position.

Thus, cognitive heuristics may take the place of logic and information seeking, similar to the biases found with other salient physical traits, such as attractiveness (Murray & Schmitz, 2011).

In the case of the GM, if in fact his reaction to the bartending situation was out of an instinctual association with height and leadership formidability, a possibility for his trepidation in allowing a “shorter” person behind the bar could stem from a fear that Josh’s stature may represent a lack of efficacious ability.

This may have been justified by the GM over the course of several years, with a legitimizing feedback loop that sought out confirmatory information and recall bias to guide judgments, which also had the potential to create a self-fulfilling prophesy if Josh had given up on the pursuit of the position and internalized this height stereotype (Brown, 2001).

Instead, however, Josh went with his instincts, which told him that a shorter person could do as well, if not better, than someone much taller who could more easily reach liquor on that top shelf. Josh’s polite insistence worked, and he was promoted to the position a few weeks after that conversation, and ended up becoming the head bartender about a year later.

So, if this height bias is truly a lingering survival instinct passed down by our ancestors, why do some doctors treat those considered to have extreme short stature with growth hormones?

Rationales for Growth Hormone Treatment

In Josh’s case, there is no need for growth hormone treatment, especially since his stature does not constitute an extreme, but why does the option even exist, and can it be used as additional justification for greater height being the preference of choice, especially in men?

To help answer this, a mini-review of the stereotypes and assumptions regarding short stature and its effects with psychosocial adjustment and quality of life was undertaken by Sandberg and Colsman (2005).

The following height-related stereotypes are not supported by empirical research:

  • That adults and children do not psychosocially adjust as well as their taller counterparts.

  • Women are less attracted to shorter men, and desire them less.

  • Shorter men do worse in school are are less intelligent.

  • Shorter men hold an occupational status and receive an income less than their taller counterparts.

  • Shorter people are more at risk for social problems.

  • Inducing greater height through hormone therapy results in an improvement with the patient’s quality of life.

These findings included a literature search by the authors for a total of 64 prior investigations reported from 1966 to 2005, and helps to negate some of the pervasive stereotypes that can be applied to those perceived as being short in stature.

An example of these biases persisted for Josh in his high school years. During this time, there were several young women who told him it was a shame he was a good-looking young man, yet too short to date them.

Although Josh was not inclined to be attracted to women, the words still affected him deeply, and he continued to run into this bias later in life, where men of a certain stature have also refused to date him, based on his height.

Although these superficial evaluations are not representative of the values, skills, and abilities Josh has, these experiences have created a sense of fear in regard to future interactions in the workplace.

These fears can be greatly minimized through the understanding of actual data, as provided in the work of Sandberg and Colsman (2005), and also help to ameliorate the possibility of others successfully using this stereotype in future interactions as a consulting psychologist.

A Mini-Intervention to Ameliorate Negativity

When dealing with seemingly stubborn and irrational behaviors presented in the form of resistance, it helps the consultant to understand (1) where the resistance may stem from, and (2) that this emotional reaction is a sign of something internal to the client that has nothing to do with us (Block, 2011).

The steps for dealing with this type of resistance can take the following form, adapted from Peter Block (2011):

  • Being able to identify the personal “attack” as a form of resistance.

  • Understanding that this is a natural process, and that the stereotype may stem from both social and biological effects.

  • Help the client to see how the stereotype has no basis in fact, and how it is taking on the form of resistance to change.

  • Keep in mind that the expression has no merit with the consultant’s competencies, abilities, or personality.

Attacks can be especially difficult, as a natural reaction to these responses can include withdrawal or attacking the client (or client representative) back.

The consultant cannot take these forms of resistance personally, but instead must take steps to ameliorate the negative stereotype in order to persist in achieving a successful consulting engagement. The same can be said of any other type of business role as well.

Conclusion

The use of height as a means of assigning status, particularly in males, is a phenomenon that can be traced back to the hunter-gatherer era (Murray & Schmitz, 2011).

This mindset seems to persist, even when empirical evidence has clearly debunked these stereotypical associations for decades (Sandberg & Colsman, 2005), perhaps stemming from the pervasive biases found with the guiding justification processes inherent with stereotyping attitudes and behaviors (Brown, 2001).

In the case of Dr. Josh, he (and others in similar situations) should keep in mind:

(1) There is no basis for any concern in regard to someone's height, and the use of one's emotional regulation and cognition should be expended with more pertinent workplace activities instead (Johns, Inzlict, & Schmader, 2008);

(2) Those who choose to use height as a basis for an attack are most likely resisting something that needs to be teased out and addressed (Block, 2011); and

(3) There is actually no evidence to support any of the assumptions tied to being short in stature, even for those considered extremely short (Sandberg & Colsman, 2005).

As consulting psychologists, our job should include being able to deal with expectations and resistance in the moment, even when our client’s reactions may seem illogical or overly emotional, in order to maintain professional composure, successfully deal with issues of fear and control, and press on to create mutual solutions. In fact, any professional position can, and should, be able to do the same.

References

Murray, G. R., & Schmitz, J. D. (2011). Caveman politics: Evolutionary leadership preferences and physical stature. Social Science Quarterly, 92(5), 1215-1235. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00815.x

Block, P. (2011). Flawless consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Brown, R. (2001) Group Processes. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Johns, M., Inzlicht, M., & Schmander, T. (2008). Stereotype threat and executive resource depletion: Examining the influence of emotion regulation. Journal of Experiemental Psychology: General, 137(4), 691-705. doi: 10.1037/a0013834

Sandberg, D. E., & Colsman, M. (2005). Growth hormone treatment of short stature: Status of the quality of life rationale. Hormone Research, 63, 275-283. doi: 10.1159/000086593


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