Do you ever wonder why some employees get promoted even though they’re not the most suitable candidates?
Or what about that colleague who always comes in late, misses deadlines, and performs to a low standard? Why do they seem to get away with their behaviour while others are held to a higher standard?
If you’re a leader, have you ever found yourself giving performance reviews knowing who are going to be the high-achievers? Upon reflection, was there a chance that you favoured some of them without any obvious reason?
No doubt, many of us will have worked in an office at some point, where it was obvious that the department boss or senior management had an ‘inner circle’ of people who seem incapable of doing wrong. We might describe such employees as being ‘in favour’, or ‘protected’ in a way that other employees aren’t. Witnessing this, we might understandably scratch our heads and wonder what’s going on.
We see what we want to see
In psychology, there’s a term known as the ‘halo effect’. Essentially, it describes the assumptions we make about a person based on our initial impression of them. For example, when we see someone who’s well-groomed, attractive and smartly dressed, based on our first impression, we might then assume that they are a good person who is intelligent and creative.
The halo effect points to something psychologists have known for a long time: our minds take shortcuts whenever possible to save energy on having to analyse and assess further than necessary.
For leaders, mindlessly buying into the halo effect means that there’s a danger in how we deal with people. Consider the following two examples:
Employee A has been at the company for six months. They made a great impression during their interview, coming ‘highly recommended’ by an associate of the hiring manager. Their job performance isn’t great, but they manage. In any case, they frequently contribute to discussions whenever the boss is around, and they always have a positive attitude – especially when the boss pitches an idea to the team. Sometimes they come in late, and are known to take the occasional medical leave.
Employee B has been at the company for three years. They perform well in their role, although they can be quite opinionated when it comes to discussions, pointing out holes in ideas that are presented by the boss. They are punctual, have a high attendance rate, and go above and beyond for clients. Day-to-day, they generally keep to themselves and get on with their job, and will work additional hours when needed.
According to research studies, Employee A is most likely to be the one who positively resonates with their leader, while Employee B is more likely to be seen as a ‘cog in the wheel’. Despite the performance of Employee A, they created a powerful first impression during their interview, which was already helped by being highly recommended by a trusted source. While Employee B gets on with doing a good job, it’s Employee A who ‘makes all the right noises’ and makes sure they are seen making a great impression.
Going about our lives, we are wired to process information quickly, and once we have an impression of someone, although it can change, it’s more often than not the case that the impression will remain absolute.
In his paper Breaking Bias, Matthew Lieberman writes, “Unconscious cognition is essential to human functioning; it helps us to be efficient and responsive to the world around us. However, unconscious processes are also prone to errors – errors that remain unrecognised and uncorrected which can lead to flawed decision-making, significant bias and blinkered thinking.”
This ‘blinkered thinking’ can mean that leaders often don’t see when people are underperforming and affecting the team’s morale. Left unchecked, this negative effect can spread through the organisation as engagement drops and employees feel less valued.
So, how can leaders protect themselves from the halo effect? This is where reflecting on professional relationships comes into play. Much of the mindless meandering that leads to unhelpful assumptions and bad decisions can be reduced by regularly asking some pertinent questions. Leaders can ask themselves:
- What assumptions have I made about this person?
- Are these assumptions true? What is the evidence?
- What assumptions aren’t valid? How did I reach these conclusions?
- Have I been favouring this person at the expense of others?
- Have I looked at the bigger picture? Are there things that I’ve missed in managing this person and others?
A little goes a long way
Naturally, it’s challenging to reflect in such a way all the time, given the many commitments that leaders have to juggle on a daily basis. That said, regular reflection on our work relationships and how we treat others can lead to valuable insights that could lead to improvements in employee engagement and the company culture as a whole.
Leaders needn’t be Zen masters who pick up on every detail, but with some research studies suggesting that our minds can wander as much as 80 per cent throughout the day, making some commitment to improving levels of focus and social awareness will surely prevent one from falling under the spell of the halo effect and benefit everyone in the long run.