Diamonds in the Rough: Eliminate Bias in Talent Decisions
We all want to believe we make objective decisions, especially when it comes to talent management.
Is Andrea a high-potential employee? Is Jon ready for a leadership role? What are their individual development needs? These questions are crucial. Get the answers right, and you will cultivate the talent your organization needs to succeed. Get them wrong, and your decisions could cost millions of dollars in wasted leadership development and lost profits.
The problem is, unconscious bias affects every decision we make, including decisions about hiring, promotion, succession planning, and training. In fact, favoritism, a common result of unconscious bias, often determines talent-management decisions. As a result, the wrong people end up in leadership roles, while the true diamonds in the rough get overlooked.
The first step to overcoming this problem is understanding where unconscious bias comes from. Three common sources of bias are the above-average effect, the halo effect, and faulty memory.
The Above-Average Effect
You’re probably thinking, “Unconscious bias doesn’t apply to me. I make better decisions than most people.” Statistically speaking, this is unlikely to be true, and it perfectly illustrates the above-average effect: if people feel like they are good at something, they assume they are better than average.
A classic example is a survey in which 80% of people rated themselves as above-average drivers. Of course, this is mathematically impossible. Only 50% of people can be above average—that’s the definition of average! And yet, in any discipline or skill, it is common for large majorities of people to see themselves as above average (McCormick, Walkey, & Green, 1986).
In business, most executives and boards think they make above-average succession decisions, but research shows the opposite: 60% of new leaders fail within the first year (Ashkenas, 2015). If you don’t believe you are susceptible to unconscious bias, then you’re probably a victim of the above-average effect.
The Halo Effect
Our brains are always using shortcuts to help us make decisions quickly and easily; it’s why we’re vulnerable to unconscious bias in the first place. One powerful shortcut is the tendency to form a general impression of a person based on your first encounter with them. Once formed, your general impression colors the way you judge that person’s future actions. If your first impression is positive, you will tend to think of the person positively overall, regardless of their actual performance. This is the halo effect.
The opposite is true as well. If a colleague spills coffee on his shirt during your first interaction, you think, “What a slob,” and the judgment sticks. It doesn’t matter how polished, conscientious, and capable your colleague is after that, because your general impression is set with a simple judgment: “Once a slob, always a slob.” This is why first impressions are so powerful.
The reality is that everyone has both strengths and weaknesses that aren’t accurately reflected in a general impression. Whether you’re evaluating a new applicant, providing development feedback, or deciding which employees show leadership potential, it’s crucial to form a complete, unbiased picture of each individual that doesn’t rely on general impressions. If you find yourself rating people on overall performance and potential, rather than focusing on specific skills and abilities, then your judgments are probably being swayed by this bias.
We tend to think of memory as a video recorder, faithfully capturing and storing the details of our experiences. But in reality, memory doesn’t work like that. Instead of recording specific details, the brain stores generalities, like “Theresa interviewed well, she should get the job.” These generalities are the basis of the halo effect discussed above, and they help you reconstruct a coherent narrative of your interview with Theresa, but they don’t provide the specific information you need to make an unbiased hiring or promotion decision—for example, accurate information about Theresa’s actual strengths and weaknesses. Further complicating the issue, neuroscientists have demonstrated in numerous studies that many of our memories are simply false (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995).
No matter how confident you are in your memory, it’s not as good as you think. Relying on it to support important decisions only reinforces other unconscious biases.
Overcoming Unconscious Bias
Unconscious bias is so deeply wired into our brains that it’s impossible for us to make purely objective decisions.
Fortunately, there are ways to minimize bias. In talent management, one of the most effective solutions is to use live simulation assessments to evaluate candidates’ and employees’ strengths, weaknesses, and growth potential. Live simulations aren’t constrained by faulty human memory—they record actual performance, not general impressions. Their sophisticated algorithms are built to eliminate the halo effect by measuring numerous specific skills and rating each one separately, while expert assessors provide independent analysis based on observations in standardized situations.
Next time you have to make a talent-management decision, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re immune from unconscious bias. Instead, let your employees and candidates try the job through a virtual assessment center and demonstrate whether they have what it takes to succeed. The true diamonds in the rough will shine through.
Ashkenas, R. (2015). First-Time Managers, Don’t Do Your Team’s Work for Them. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/09/first-time-managers-dont-do-your-teams-work-for-them
McCormick, I. A., Walkey, F. H., & Green, D. E. (1986). Comparative perceptions of driver ability: A confirmation and expansion. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 18 (3), 205-208.
Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Martin Lanik is the CEO of Pinsight®, the leader readiness platform. His leadership development solutions have helped thousands of leaders in 30 countries build stronger skills. Utilized by over 100 of the most recognizable corporations (e.g., AIG, CenturyLink), his leadership programs received awards from Chief Learning Officer and Brandon Hall. Martin is the author of THE LEADER HABIT (AMACOM, April 2018), in which he shares the surprisingly simple 5-minute exercises that can turn anyone into an effective leader. Martin holds a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from Colorado State University.