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The Top Ten Most Common Biases To Look Out For In Leadership And Recruitment

Unconscious bias is something we all have. In many cases, they result from small quirks in our psychology that were once useful, but have not adapted to the modern world and so often hinder us instead of helping. Though in some cases they can be harmless, in a workplace context they can be seriously detrimental to the organisation’s interests, and in some cases even discriminatory. There are at least 280 individual biases identified so far, but here we will just look at ten of the most common and how they can negatively effect organisational leadership and recruitment.

1. Affinity Bias

Studies show that our first impression of a person is formed in only three to twenty seconds. That’s obviously not enough time to form a rational decision based on a thorough assessment of a person’s character, so what is this opinion based on? Often, it’s affinity bias.

This happens when we see one thing we have in common with a person – be it a style of dress, taste in music, or a hobby – and think of them more positively because of the commonality this creates between us. In some cases, it can lead to further assumptions being made based on this initial similarity – ‘That person went to the same university as me, I’m smart, so they must be smart too’ – without any evidence.

Clearly, affinity bias can play havoc with the recruitment process, as it can lead recruiters to view one candidate more positively for reasons unrelated to their suitability for the role. This means candidates don’t truly enter the recruitment process on equal footing, and may result in someone other than the best candidate being chosen for the job.

2. Conformity Bias

As humans, we are always looking for a sense of belonging, so we naturally gravitate towards being in the in-group whenever we can. Unfortunately, this in-group/out-group mentality is a key part of why unconscious biases turn up in the first place. A prime example of this is conformity bias.

Conformity bias is the name given to the way offering a dissenting voice becomes harder the larger a majority becomes. When everyone else thinks a certain plan is a good idea, it becomes harder for the individual to disagree than it would be if the group’s views were more mixed. This is further complicated when you factor in workplace power dynamics – if the boss says ‘I like this idea, what do you think?’ employees are much more likely to agree than disagree, as they have to deal with both the social pressure to fit in and the pressure to please their boss.

The problem here is that this risks creating an echo chamber where the views of the leadership are not exposed to the healthy cross-examination that leads to a more robust understanding of the pros and cons of each plan, leading to poorer decision making in the long run.

3. The Halo/Horns Effect

The halo effect refers to the moment when you notice one thing you like about someone and generalise it to the whole person. You might like their style, so you’re sure they’ll be friendly. It’s similar to affinity bias, but the selected attribute in this case does not have to be something you both have in common. The horns effect is the opposite – you spot one thing you don’t like about a person and generalise that to their whole person. That person has tattoos, they won’t be a good team member.

As with affinity bias, the issue arises when the bias prevents a recruiter from getting a clear, unclouded picture of candidates where each is judged solely on their abilities.

4. Confirmation Bias

You may have heard of this one before, and if you’ve ever taken part in any kind of political debate you may well have seen it in action. Confirmation bias is the name given to the way the brain attributes high significance to evidence that corroborates its existing beliefs while downplaying any information that challenges them.

So if you think a candidate is going to be a poor fit before you begin the interview, you’re more likely to pay attention to the awkwardness of their body language (inexperienced? Lacking people skills?) than the extensive experience evidenced in their answers. While many biases can interact with or overlap one another, it is particularly clear to see how confirmation bias can amplify other unconscious biases: if you think someone is going to be good at the interview because they went to the same school as you (affinity bias), you’re likely to pay more attention to their successes than the ways in which they lack the required skills.

5. Optimism Bias

Optimism bias is the ‘it won’t happen to me’ bias; the tendency to overestimate the possibility of positive outcomes and underestimate possibility of negative ones.

In leadership, this can lead to an organisation taking unnecessary or reckless risks simply because ‘it turned out fine before.’ When leaders say that they trust their ‘gut feeling,’ this really means they are valuing non-rational beliefs over rational analysis of the facts, and optimism bias shows that this approach is liable to underestimate the risks of any particular course of action.

6. Negativity Bias

Do you feel like negative personal comments cut you down far more than compliments lift you up? Studies show that one negative comment is worth five compliments, because our brains focus more on the bad than the good – this is negativity bias. While catastrophising may have been a valuable tool in the days when our problems consisted of deciding how to react to an unidentified noise that may be the wind, or may be a hungry predator, this quirk of the mind is ill equipped to handle the more complex issues and choices present in our lives today – and particularly in the context of organisational leadership.

While negativity bias isn’t exactly the opposite to optimism bias, its risks to an organisation can take that form. Overestimating the likelihood of negative outcomes can lead to an unhealthily risk-averse style of management that stifles growth. It may feel safe to keep what you have rather than take a risk for more, but good leadership isn’t about being safe any more than it is about being reckless – it’s about being rational and taking calculated risks when it is beneficial for the organisation.

7. Attribution Bias

It’s fantastic you want to learn about how unconscious bias can affect your organisation – but it isn’t surprising, after all, you’re an Aries aren’t you? Attribution bias happens when someone extrapolates unrelated (and often inaccurate) information about a person’s character and background from one small attribute, such as their name, nationality, or even their star sign. At its most innocuous, this can lead to a slightly awkward interaction between colleagues, but at its worst can stray into bullying. As many of the assumptions made through attribution bias are based on existing prejudices, they may lead to comments that promote stereotypes based on protected characteristics such as race or gender, which could potentially cause legal problems in addition to creating an uncomfortable or hostile work environment for some employees.

8. Beauty Bias

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ but more often than not that message has not reached the unconscious mind. People generally attribute unrelated positive traits – friendliness, intelligence, honesty – to people we consider attractive. This is beauty bias.

In a recruitment context, if two candidates have the same qualifications, those making decisions are often inclined to pick the one that we consider better looking. In addition to being clearly unfair on the candidate that is not chosen, it also risks the organisation making a less suitable hire by choosing someone assumed to be, say, intelligent, rather than using other recruitment strategies to determine this accurately.

9. Contrast Bias

Generally, people find it easier to compare someone to another person than to a written specification, so it’s easy to fall into trap of comparing a prospective hire to the person who was in that job previously. If Brenda was great at the job, surely the best person for the job will be just like her, right? Wrong. That’s just the contrast bias speaking.

The problem with contrast bias is that two people with very different personalities and backgrounds may be just as great in the same job – so the best person for the role might be nothing like Brenda! Contrast bias risks the recruiter choosing a person based not on their skills but on other, irrelevant traits that remind them of a person that was good in that job before. It can even lead to problems in job advertisements, such as requiring a university degree when the job doesn’t call for it, simply because the last person in the role had one. The perfect person for the role might not even bother sending you their CV.

10. Overconfidence Bias

Overconfidence bias occurs when someone thinks they’re more intelligent than they really are.

…You’re thinking of someone already aren’t you?

The problem is, though we may think we are good at spotting these people, this isn’t always the case, at least not initially. We naturally tend to follow confident people, as we trust that that confidence comes from them knowing what they’re doing. By the time we realise they don’t, it can be too late – you’ve already given them the job, and someone more capable slipped through your fingers because they didn’t project the same outward confidence.

Summit has years of experience working with organisations to overcome the effects of unconscious bias. If you want to find out how Summit can help you rework your recruitment processes and leadership style to mitigate the effects of these biases, take a look at one of our unconscious bias training courses.

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