Ninety-six percent of employees feel that management bias affects performance-review scoring, according to a 2019 Brandon Hall Group study.
At first blush, that statistic seems shocking. But when you think about it, what’s really shocking is that the number isn’t 100%. Because, hey, everyone has unconscious biases. They’re natural quirks of the human brain that live in the same place as our “fight or flight instinct,” and there’s nothing inherently malicious about most of them.
Manager bias becomes a problem when you don’t acknowledge or examine it, and you make choices based on factors you’re not even aware of. Biases can lead you to dismiss the work of good team members (or to show favoritism to less-deserving people).
Workplace bias isn’t a new topic, and for decades, psychologists and sociologists have studied the ways that biases affect us, starting in childhood. But the racial-justice protests of 2020 have sparked a renewed interest in examining these phenomena and the harm they can do, especially the biases rooted in stereotypes. The rise of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic also means it’s more important than ever for managers to be aware of their biases, because the less you interact with your team, the more opportunities your brain has to fill in the blanks with assumptions.
If you want to do more to ensure that you’re treating your team fairly, the first step is to shine a light on your own mental blind spots. Read on to learn more.
Common Types of Workplace Bias
The Brandon Hall survey doesn’t ask employees to define the precise ways they feel their managers are biased, but there are several common biases that tend to crop up in the workplace. These biases are nearly universal—we all experience them to some degree—but they do more harm when they affect the judgment of people in power. The following biases aren’t exclusive to managers, but they are likely to impact whether or not your team feels you’re treating them fairly.
Scientific American describes implicit bias as “[the] tendency for stereotype-confirming thoughts to pass spontaneously through our minds.” As a manager, you may have had these thoughts, even if you didn’t want to have them or you weren’t even sure where they came from. Maybe you doubted that an older team member could grasp a new technology or were surprised when a female team member assertively took charge of a meeting.
These thoughts are the result of stereotypes we’ve all absorbed simply by being members of society. They can apply to race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality. And it’s not only members of the dominant group who experience these thoughts. Stanford University psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt studies implicit bias and has shared a personal anecdote about being on a plane with her five-year-old son. Her son looked at a Black male passenger and said, “I hope that man doesn’t rob the plane.” Her son is also Black.
The important thing to recognize about implicit bias is that you don’t have to identify with these thoughts. You can hold them to the light, examine them, and choose to reject them because you recognize that they are prejudiced.
There are many ways to address the role of implicit bias in the workplace. Some workplaces offer implicit-bias training, and that’s a good start. However, activists have rightly pointed out that a two-day training isn’t enough to overcome a lifetime of social programming. Recognizing and rejecting implicit bias requires ongoing education, reflection, and, above all, relationship-building that helps us see people as individuals, not as representatives of a group. You can do some of that work on your own time, by reading articles or listening to podcasts that address these issues. But the most valuable opportunities to connect with individuals are during your one-on-one meetings, where you can connect on a personal level and get candid feedback about your blind spots.
Most managers understand the value of a diverse workplace, in which people with different backgrounds and personalities can contribute their own unique ideas. Despite that, we’re still prone to similarity bias, in which we surround ourselves with and give preferential treatment to people who are like us.
These similarities can be rooted in identity (women favoring women, white people favoring white people), or they can be narrower in scope (people favoring people with similar communication styles or tastes).
Mitigating the effects of similarity bias starts with examining your hiring and recruitment practices and building a critical mass of diversity in leadership. (More on that below.)
Attribution and Confirmation Bias
Attribution bias occurs when you assess a situation based on how you see someone’s character and ignore situational explanations. For instance, let’s say two team members are late turning in work. You might assume the person you like was behind schedule because they wanted to make sure every detail was perfect. Meanwhile, you might think the person you don’t like was late because they wasted their time.
Confirmation bias is a similar phenomenon, in which you absorb only the things about someone that confirm your preexisting opinion and ignore the things that challenge that opinion. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever had a boss you couldn’t seem to impress, who only seemed to notice your mistakes. Meanwhile, the company’s “golden child” could do no wrong, even though they didn’t actually perform better than you.
Both of these biases can exist independently of implicit bias, but it’s easy to imagine how stereotypes can aggravate them. For example, you can be predisposed to think of a member of your in-group as “good,” and give them the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong. You can also give stereotypical explanations for behavior, like assuming your team’s lone female always makes the coffee because of her naturally maternal nature.
You can circumvent these common tendencies by being more curious about your team members. Don’t just assign them labels like “good” and “bad” and then never reassess those labels again. Keep your eye on objective performance metrics, and ask one-on-one questions that help you see your own blind spots. For example, ask team members who they think the standout performers are and who isn’t getting enough credit for their work.
Every manager is familiar with recency bias from trying to write performance reviews and realizing only things from the last month are remembered. Recency bias is the brain’s tendency to remember more recent events better and weigh them more strongly than they deserve.
That’s a real problem in performance assessments, because one mistake shouldn’t overshadow a whole year’s worth of good work. Your team will feel understandably mistreated if your review doesn’t take their entire performance into account.
For managers, the cure for recency bias is documentation that helps you keep track of team performance. Take notes during one-on-ones, go over them at review time, and look for narratives and patterns. You may find that a team member’s performance really has fallen off at the end of the review period, or you may discover that an event you weighted strongly was really just an outlier.
Management software can help you make sense of your documentation. For instance, Uptick’s search feature lets you easily scan all your one-on-one notes so you can quickly get the context you need to overcome recency bias.
How to Fight Management Bias
Professor and author Joan C. Williams has written that “You can’t be a great manager without becoming a bias interrupter.” That means not only interrupting flawed business procedures but also interrupting your own thought processes.
Biases are your brain’s way of cutting corners. You can stop them by being the manager of your own mind and getting your higher faculties to take over.
Start with yourself, and use those lessons to change how your whole team and company work.
Get Feedback from Your Team
Admit it: when you read that 96% statistic, your first two thoughts were:
- I am clearly in the 4% of unbiased managers.
- And if I’m not, why hasn’t my team told me?
The answer is that bias is hard to talk about, and it’s particularly tough to point out someone’s bias when they have more power than you. But if you want to identify your own biases, you have to create these opportunities for feedback.
You can issue anonymous surveys asking your team about fairness. If possible, work with your HR department to ensure that the surveys are helpful and truly anonymous.
You should also ask your team in one-on-ones if they find your judgments fair or if there’s something you’re missing. You don’t even have to use the word “bias,” as long as you give team members a chance to give you greater context. In particular, make sure you get feedback before submitting performance reviews so there are no surprises.
If your team says that you do suffer from bias—and, just as a reminder, we all do—don’t get defensive. We would all like to think of ourselves as rational and benevolent, so it can be very upsetting to hear that we are guilty of irrational and prejudiced behavior. But bias is only a personal failing if you refuse to learn about it or do something about it.
Assess Bias in the Hiring and Interviewing Process
Implicit bias and similarity bias infect the hiring process of many companies and make meaningful diversity impossible. These biases are stubborn: Harvard researchers found that white job applicants got called back 36% more than Black applicants, and those statistics haven’t changed since 1990.
But there are concrete steps you can take to fight this state of affairs:
- Remove identifiers (names, ages, etc.) from resumes.
- Ensure that underrepresented groups are on your search committees.
- Demand diversity in your applicant pools. (This might mean expanding your recruitment pipeline, because you won’t get many women of color if you’re primarily hiring out of your CEO’s all-white fraternity).
- Keep hiring criteria objective, and make sure that you’re not excluding minorities by searching for biased “culture fit.”
Monitor Day-to-Day Bias
It’s a great idea to institute diversity training and pursue bias education in your free time. But overcoming unconscious bias isn’t something you can do separately from the rest of your work; it has to be a part of your decision-making process. When it comes to your interactions with your team, fight bias by being a little more thoughtful about how you do things. Pause before making choices, and try to look at the status quo with fresh eyes.
For instance, you might notice that your after-work happy hour is excluding your Muslim team member who doesn’t drink, or that office housekeeping always seems to fall on your female staff.
When it’s time to hand out a juicy assignment, check your impulse to give it to your favorite young “star,” and ask if there’s an unrecognized player who needs a chance to shine.
Recognize the Weight of Bias on Your Team
Finally, remember that your team is also struggling under their own set of issues related to bias. That’s particularly true for people who are underrepresented in your workplace and may be anxious about their performance. For instance, if there is only one Black person in your office, they may be particularly anxious about disproving stereotypes about their abilities, and this can actually harm performance.
Social psychologist Claude M. Steele called this phenomenon “stereotype threat,” and his book Whistling Vivaldi suggests ways we can combat it. One way is to give members of underrepresented groups opportunities for self-affirmation by talking about their skills and values. One-on-ones are the perfect opportunity to ask these questions that shore up the confidence of your team.
Another tactic is to simply ensure that one person does not have to be the sole representative of their group. Steele quotes Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, who described that experience as “asphyxiating.” She said that once Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrived as the Court’s second woman, “The pressure was off . . . we just became two of the nine justices.”
Overcoming Bias in the Workplace Starts with You
Unconscious biases pervade our lives, but they begin to lose their power when we acknowledge them and recognize their negative impacts. That’s work every member of society must undertake, but it’s particularly crucial for people in positions of authority.
While it’s impossible to completely eradicate manager bias, you fight it every time you slow down and question why things are the way they are. Get to know each team member and each situation on a case-by-case basis instead of taking your brain’s shortcuts. It’s the first step to a fairer world.