When we talk about bias, we often tie it to acts of discrimination or prejudice. But according to cognitive science, everybody, by virtue of having a brain that’s constantly seeking efficiency, is biased in some way — and not all biases make us actively malicious.
The key is how we manage our biases.
While biases can affect any of an organization’s talent decisions, they can be especially harmful when it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts. And there is perhaps no setting that shapes careers, salaries, and lives like annual performance evaluations.
In a recent performance management summit we ran with over 100 large organizations, 57% of them said they weren’t taking any actions to address bias in performance reviews. One reason why may be a lack of shared language: In order to address biases, you first have to be able to label them.
Here are three of them, what they’re all about, and how to address each one.
Expedience bias: It’s what’s most obvious, so it must be true.
Expedience bias tilts us toward answers that seem obvious, often at the expense of answers that might be more relevant or useful.
The privileging of immediate data can take many forms. In digital publishing, it might be measuring writers solely on traffic numbers, rather than the quality of the writing. In sales, it could be solely focusing on revenue targets, without considering how the quality of client relationships drives future business.
Put another way: While it’s true that what gets measured gets managed, measurement should not be confused with management.
Another Must read: Use Ratings Carefully in Your Performance Reviews
How to address the bias. To avoid expedience bias, go beyond the data that is easiest to get, and prioritize less obvious signs of success or failure, such as a person’s ability to motivate other team members to hit their goals. We recommend that managers talk to colleagues across departments to get a fuller, more robust picture of the role a given employee plays in the organization. Of course, doing so requires managers also check their likability and similarity biases, to make sure the opinions are fair.
Managers can also conduct less biased reviews by proactively asking employees to outline their personal goals ahead of time. For instance, in addition to hitting sales targets, an employee may want to lead more meetings and be a better collaborator. The technique avoids expedience bias because the data that is easiest to get is also now the most relevant, not to mention more comprehensive.
To help this process, it’s in both parties’ interest to communicate early about the goal and begin tracking it. The manager can keep a tally of how many meetings the person leads and how many times the person tag-teams with a coworker on a project. The manager can empower the employee by encouraging them to do the same, and track themselves.
Distance bias: What’s near is stronger than what’s far.
True to its name, distance bias describes the brain’s tendency to think people and events that are closer to us, in space or time, are more important than things that are further away. The nearer something is, the greater the value we automatically assign.
For example, it’s far easier to recall Marta’s sales numbers last week or last month than it is to remember how she’s performed over the entire year. Even if she improved dramatically over the last two quarters, her manager might defer to recent numbers because older ones take more effort to recall.
That kind of bias can taint the manager’s view of Marta’s performance, hurting her career growth and perhaps the health of the company if she deserves a promotion.
How to address the bias. In the context of a year-end review, you won’t remember events from January as clearly as those from October. Even if Marta’s performance has gone up or down, you’ll focus on where she is now, since the brain automatically reads more recent months as being more important.
The best way to sidestep distance bias is to record information along the way, almost like a journal of employee feedback.
It’s amazing how we read our journals and remember things we forgot we did or how we felt at a moment in time. It’s just as powerful when we read our own words about how incredibly well Marta led the meeting with the CFO back in February.
By taking this approach, when the annual review rolls around, you have a year’s worth of evaluations to refer to, rather than defaulting to the latest news.
A related article: How to turn low-performing employees into high performers
Similarity bias: We like what is like us.
Separating people into in-groups and out-groups appears to be part of being human. The major downside is we sometimes use superficial proxies like skin color or gender to decide who’s “one of us” and who’s not.
This is similarity bias: We favor people who are like us, often at the expense of those who are not.
At work, this tendency can lead male managers to unknowingly devote more attention to other men, for example, or religious people to favor those who practice the same faith. Even if managers claim to be “blind” to certain traits, out-group members still must work harder to gain the manager’s attention, lest they seem like underperformers.
How to address the bias. We teach managers that, before delivering a performance review, they should find something that they have in common with the employee. This primes the manager to see the employee as part of their in-group, thus conferring all the benefits of attention and perception that come with doing so.
For example, a male manager reviewing a female employee might begin by discussing a recent work event they both participated in, be it a soccer league or a team meeting. Finding common ground puts both people in a psychological state of certainty, due to having aligned goals. The male manager can then focus on the employee’s ideas and accomplishments, since she is now part of his in-group.
Managers that regularly strive to find common ground in conversation can make this temporary perk part of the lasting company culture. People can come to see one another as similar just by virtue of being coworkers and sharing goals, regardless of belief or appearance.
By addressing these three biases, managers can make their hiring, evaluation, and promotion decisions fairer. The takeaway in all three cases relates to a core principle about mitigating cognitive biases: If you aren’t working on them, they’re probably working on you.
Authors: Beth Jones, Khalil Smith & David Rock. Article first appeared in Harvard Business Review
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