Business leader and employee with boxes over their head

Beyond the Obvious: Unmasking Veiled Leadership Biases and the Dangers of Overestimating Talent

Written By: Sean Frontz

September 14, 2023 – 6 min read

Leadership bias – we’ve all encountered it, perhaps even unknowingly let it guide some of our decisions. It’s a subtle force that can make us overestimate talent or misjudge our team members’ abilities, leading to disappointing or unexpected results.

Bias in leadership is like the invisible filter that clouds our decision-making. We unknowingly favor certain individuals or ideas, based on a subjective criteria like personality traits, or past experiences. We might find ourselves leaning towards an extroverted candidate with a powerful presence and neglecting the quiet but equally (or more) qualified contender.

So, how do we look past these hidden biases? We first need to recognize the various types of biases and then actively work to minimize their impact on our decisions. In this article, we explore the most common hidden biases, their potential consequences, and how you can mitigate their impact.

“Human beings are poor examiners, subject to superstition, bias, prejudice, and a PROFOUND tendency to see what they want to see rather than what’s really there.”

M. Scott Peck

The Subtle, Hidden Biases Within

The following biases may seem innocent enough, but they can unduly influence how you evaluate and interact with your teams. As you take these biases in, think about how they might be interfering with the performance of your team.

The Hiring Bias: “I hired you—you can’t be bad.” Leaders who fall prey to this bias believe that their hiring decisions are foolproof, leading them to assume that employees they selected must be competent solely based on their choice. Such unwarranted confidence can blind them to any potential performance issues and hinder objective evaluations.

The Friendship Bias: “You have become a friend of mine over the years.” When leaders develop personal friendships with employees, they may unintentionally become lenient or biased in favor of these individuals, compromising fair judgment and decision-making. This bias can negatively affect team dynamics and lead to a perception of favoritism.

The Personal Preference Bias: “I don’t personally like you very much.” A leader’s subjective feelings towards an employee can significantly influence their treatment and evaluation of that individual. This bias can lead to unfair treatment and hinder opportunities for career growth.

The Inheritance Bias: “I inherited you and would not have chosen you myself.” When leaders take over a team from a predecessor, they might harbor reservations or biases towards employees who were part of the previous regime. This bias can create divisions and hamper team cohesiveness.

The Association Bias: “You have been on my team for years—if you are bad, I am bad.” Leaders may tie their self-worth to the performance of their team members, leading to an association bias. This can cloud their objectivity in evaluating individual performance and hinder opportunities for constructive feedback and improvement.

The Familiarity Bias: “I used to work with you, and now I am your boss.” Prior working relationships with employees may impact a leader’s perception and treatment of those individuals in their new managerial role, potentially leading to unequal treatment and skewed evaluations.

The Longevity Bias: “You have been with our company for years—you can’t be bad.” Perceiving an employee’s tenure as a reflection of their competence, regardless of their actual performance, can create a false sense of security and lead to complacency.

The Situational Bias: “It’s just a rough time for you, you will improve soon.” Assuming that poor performance is a temporary setback rather than a reflection of an employee’s capabilities can lead to overlooking critical issues that require attention.

The Halo Effect Bias: “You have been an award winner in the past.” An employee’s past successes or recognition may overshadow current shortcomings, leading to overly positive evaluations and misplaced promotions.

The Favoritism Bias: “I brought you over here with me, so you must be good.” Leaders may exhibit favoritism towards employees they personally selected for new teams or positions, which can foster a sense of unfairness among other team members.

The Career Advancement Bias: “If I rate you poorly, it may affect your career advancement.” Feeling pressured to rate employees more favorably to avoid hindering their career growth can compromise the integrity of performance evaluations.

The Leniency Bias: “You have worked so hard—you deserve a break.” Leaders may overlook performance issues due to an employee’s perceived effort or dedication, leading to an environment where poor performance is tolerated.

Leadership Bias and Equality in the Workplace

“The point isn’t to get people to accept that they have biases, but to get them to see [for themselves] that those biases have negative consequences for others.”

Theresa McHenry (GM HR, Marketing and Consumer Business at Microsoft)

The Dangers of Overestimating Talent

The combined impact of these hidden biases can lead to the overestimation of talent within an organization, creating an illusion of excellence. When you disproportionately praise and reward certain individuals based on biases like the Halo Effect or Favoritism, you risk making ill-informed promotion decisions and foster complacency among employees. This skewed perception of capabilities can hinder strategic decision-making and negatively impact team morale.

Mitigating the Impact of Hidden Biases

To address hidden leadership biases and promote fairness and objectivity, take the following steps:

  1. Self-awareness: Leaders must be reflective and recognize their own biases. Acknowledging and understanding personal biases is the first step toward mitigating their influence.
  2. Clear Performance Criteria: Establishing transparent performance criteria helps eliminate subjectivity and ensures that evaluations are based on objective measures of employee contributions.
  3. Constructive Feedback Culture: Encouraging open and constructive feedback fosters a culture of continuous improvement and personal development, benefiting both individuals and the organization.
  4. Diverse Hiring and Promotion Practices: Promoting diversity in the workplace ensures that decisions are not influenced solely by biases but are driven by a variety of perspectives and experiences.
  5. Awareness Programs: Providing regular bias awareness and mitigation training equips leaders with the tools to make fair and unbiased decisions.

Summing it Up

Unearthing and addressing hidden biases in leadership is vital to fostering an inclusive and equitable workplace. Leaders must actively challenge their own biases and champion diversity and fairness within their teams. By implementing measures prioritizing objectivity and fairness, you can create a work environment that thrives on meritocracy and improves overall performance. Embracing a culture that celebrates diversity and empowers individuals to reach their full potential will ultimately lead to a more prosperous and progressive future for businesses, leaders, and employees alike.

Never Miss an Article from PDG