5 Killer Biases That Can Hurt HR

March 19, 2014 Darcy Jacobsen

TigerI spend a lot of time deceiving myself. And, I’m sorry to say, so do you.

It’s not really our fault though. Our brains are sort of wired that way. You see, in order to function quickly, the human brain likes to take little cognitive shortcuts. We see a cue, and our brain fills in the blanks for us—it makes the leap so we can more quickly take action and make decisions. We call it gut instinct.

It’s something of a holdover from the caveman days. Your brain sees long teeth and fur, hears snarling, and immediately sends your feet a message to haul it out of Dodge because there is undoubtedly a sabre-toothed tiger on your tail. No time to stop and analyze the rest of the sensory data to make sure. Just run and work it out later.

Today, we tend to think of these cognitive shortcuts as simple common sense and intuition. We fall back on them because they are comfortable ways for our busy brains to sort data. But there is a dark side to this that we cannot afford to ignore. The truth is, our instincts are not always right. In fact, those little shortcuts are often flat out wrong.

Psychologists call these shortcuts “cognitive biases.” They rewrite our memories, sort information incorrectly, fool us into jumping to conclusions, and give us the false confidence to dig in on bad decisions. In short, cognitive biases are HR’s worst nightmare.

Last year, I highlighted eight biases that can get a company culture into trouble, but here are five particularly dangerous biases (some of them new) that HR should be on the lookout for:

1. The Poor Hire Bias – (Halo Effect) This bias may be one of the reasons your turnover rate is higher than you’d like. This bias makes us think positive qualities are lumped together. Where one attractive quality exists, we think others must also exist. Hence we assume that a physically attractive candidate is also talented, competent, and far more intelligent than the candidate who is less conventionally good-looking. It is a fact that better-looking people are hired more often. It is also a fact that they are not always the best candidate.

2. The Resistance to Change Bias – (System Justification Bias) This bias is probably the one voted most likely to drive HR leaders into an early grave. This bias encourages employees to defend and prefer the status quo—regardless of the facts. People suffering this bias will always see “the way we’ve always  done it” as better, more legitimate, and more desirable than new alternatives. It makes great communication and employee buy-in a critical factor in change management.

3. The Bad Performance Review Bias – (Recency Bias) The Recency bias is one of several biases that make employees hate performance reviews (the Negativity Bias is another). The bias refers to our tendency to remember only the more recent events clearly. (Sometimes it includes the peak and the most recent, as when we remember pain.) This means if things have been tough for the last month leading up to a review, a manager is likely to forget everything the employee did right for the previous eleven. It works the other way, too. And some employees know it. I recently ran across a tweet from an employee who amped up his marketing skills in the month leading up to his review. It is critical to capture objective, crowdsourced performance data all year long, to counter-balance the recency-biased perceptions many managers carry into reviews.

4. The Office Politics Bias(Ingroup Bias) This is a particularly nasty little bias that encourages us to play the Us and Them game within organizations. With this bias, people will have a tendency to view “their” group—whether a workgroup, department or division—as better, more trustworthy, and superior, while outsiders are collectively viewed as inferior. This can play havoc with interdepartmental operations, so be sure you do what you can to tear down silos, build relationships, emphasize company-wide culture and make your company feel like it is one big group, rather than a collection of opposing teams.

5. The Blind Manager Bias – (Confirmation Bias) People tend to ignore information that does not fit with their beliefs while they weigh agreeable information more heavily. This is the Confirmation Bias, and it can be a lot of trouble for managers. Think of it is as the counterpart to the self-fulfilling prophecy. Managers can often make decisions that fit with their beliefs about employees, and ignore important information or behavior that they just don’t want to see. That’s why it is important to provide managers with as much objective data about employee performance as possible, to avoid a point of failure around this bias.

These five are really only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to cognitive biases that touch our work lives. But hopefully keeping an eye out for these (and encouraging managers to do the same) will help you to build some safeguards to prevent them from negatively impacting your culture.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these companion posts:

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