How bias affects the workplace
A key problem in leadership, particularly with new leaders, is a lack of experience in leadership roles can mean a lack of the skills, knowledge and attitudes for successful navigation of the cognitive minefield of bias. To help leaders navigate this minefield, let’s have a look at a few biases and examine how they can affect the workplace.
Selective Perception and Confirmation Bias
Selective perception occurs when a manager exhibits bias by unknowingly paying attention to only a portion (selection) of the information available to them. When selective perception is employed to confirm existing opinions, it is known as a confirmation bias.
A prime example is when a team member is promoted to leader. As part of the team, they might have built strong relationships with a couple of team members. The remaining team members might believe the new leader is showing favouritism to their ‘friends’. They will then subconsciously look for evidence that proves favouritism and ignore evidence that disproves it. In turn, the new team leader may attribute jealousy to the cause of their behaviour, also without evidence. If both sides continue on this cycle, relationships erode, and everyone begins to feel as though they are the victims.
First Impression Bias
All too often, managers rely too much on their first impressions of employees. The initial judgments the manager makes about the employee is made with very limited information. This limited view of their employees’ shapes and controls how a leader processes and takes on board future evidence.
An example is when an employee first comes on board and may struggle to get their head around their training. They might come across as slow or incompetent. However, once they have mastered the training, their manager may subconsciously keep seeing them as incompetent. The thing to remember is that we all need time to settle in and it should be given without the risk of judgement.
Recency Bias/Spill Over Bias
The recency bias occurs when focus is unduly balanced in favour of an employee’s most recent activities. The spill over bias is the opposite, where the manager pays too much attention to past information.
Both recency and spill over bias often occur at the time of annual performance reviews. Either the employee’s most recent activities are given more weight than previous activity. Or a prominent episode in the employee’s past activities dominates the manager’s perception of the employee. Neither bias is fair on the employee as they should be judged on their overall performance.
Ingroup Bias/Similarity Bias
Ingroup is bias based on inclusion in the managers inner circle, because the manager likes you. Similarity bias is the propensity to connect more with people who are like ourselves. It’s important to relate to those you work with, but it is unlikely that everyone will find common ground.
An example of these two biases at work is when someone on the ‘in’ fails at a project and the manager attributes it to bad luck or the situation. Likewise, an outsider might be successful, but the manager attributes their success to luck or situational causes, rather than to any positive character traits. The problem here is obvious, but when this is happening it may take extra care to notice it.
Most often, in the workplace, biases have negative influences.
To overcome any fall out over biases, discuss the possibility of any within your team to identify and remove or prevent them. But remember to work with your team and create a safe space. Biases lead to trust issues, which can lead to employee disengagement, so make sure to get on top of them as best you can.