As many companies prepare for the annual performance cycle, it’s important to reflect on the ways unconscious bias can lead to inconsistencies in our evaluations and feedback ultimately impacting employee opportunities and rewards.
Unconscious bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which can be both positive and negative, are activated involuntarily and usually without our awareness or intentional control. This is because we’ve been conditioned via media, education, family upbringing, and culture to take mental shortcuts by searching for patterns and discarding specifics to form generalities. This often leads us to take actions that are not in line with our stated beliefs and values and when unrecognized and unchecked often negatively and disproportionately impact women, non-binary people, and people of color.
- Men and women are more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency, and pay them significantly more per year than women.*
- We tend to focus on personality traits of women and accomplishments/skills of men, even between two people in the same role, doing the same job (eg “Courtney is challenging to work with, but I like that Brian is analytical in his approach.”)**
- The success of members of the majority group tends to be attributed to ability and failure tends to be attributed to situational factors. The opposite tends to be true for underrepresented groups.***
- Success tends to be scrutinized more heavily for underrepresented groups and more justification is necessary to be perceived as equally successful as their white, male counterparts who often receive the benefit of the doubt.****
Common Biases/Examples in Performance Reviews and Calibrations
- Groupthink: When a group of people make uninformed, irrational decisions because they feel pressure to conform or not “rock the boat.” It also occurs when there is a more senior person in the room whose opinion ends up carrying more weight and people feel pressure to follow. Remember, power is real.
- Example: In a calibration where an executive is present, the group instantly aligns with their perspective.
- Recency bias: The tendency to focus on the most recent time period instead of the total time. In performance conversations, leaders may evaluate the most recent behaviors and accomplishments of their direct reports rather than evaluating the employee’s performance holistically.
- Example: Sam has been having a tough time at home during the last two months and he’s been needing to take more frequent breaks throughout the day. During his annual performance evaluation, his manager says that he is consistently unavailable and unreliable even though Sam worked overtime for the first ten months of the year.
- Anchoring bias: Similar to recency bias, anchoring bias happens when our decisions are influenced by a particular reference point or “anchor” which is often the first piece of information we have.
- Example: “The first thing my employee did this quarter was send out a high-visibility weather report with errors – they don’t have what it takes to be a top performer”.
- Confirmation bias: The tendency to explicitly favor, search for, and remember information, personalities, or traits that confirms a (usually shallow) belief/hypothesis we already have. As a result, we ignore or forget details that conflict with said belief.
- Example: Lisa worked at a hyper-growth startup before, so she must be good at operational excellence.
- Halo/Horn: When a single personality trait, physical trait, or experience either positive (halo) or negative (horn) substantially influences how you feel about someone.
- Example: Marcus is introverted and therefore probably wouldn’t be a strong people manager.
- Affinity Bias: We tend to get along with or have an affinity towards people who are like us
- Example: Bie reminds me of me at that stage in my career. I grew into the role, so she probably will too.
Now that we have an understanding of how bias impacts our thought process and decision making, what can we do to actually mitigate and interrupt it during the performance cycle?
- Define: Clearly define performance criteria and use data to objectively measure success. Use this same criteria for similar jobs and levels across the team. Calibrate with other managers on the team to ensure consistency.
- Ask yourself: “Have I clearly defined performance criteria and expectations of success for my employee?”
- Reflect: Slow down, pause, and reflect. Understand your own bias and question your behaviors and decisions. Every time you have a strong reaction about an employee, revisit the performance criteria and ensure your reaction is based on tangible evidence, not instinct or emotion.
- Ask yourself: “Am I aware of my own biases and how they might influence how I’m reacting?”
- Examine: Solicit and incorporate feedback from multiple sources for a more holistic view of the employee’s performance and skills.
- Ask others: “Can you provide clear, objective examples of this employee’s performance and skills and how they tie to the core competencies of the role?”
- Educate: If you are participating in a promotion calibration conversation, kick off the conversation by grounding everyone in common biases. This helps ensure it is top-of-mind for the group and promotes accountability.
- Ask others: “I’d love to start this promotion calibration conversation by grounding the group in common performance biases…”
- Engage: Ask probing questions. Without more explicit, concrete criteria for decision making, individuals tend to disambiguate the situation using whatever information is most easily accessible—including stereotypes. If you don’t have all the information, ask your leader or team to clarify.
- Ask others: If you don’t have all of the information, ask probing questions like “tell me more about that” or I’m not sure I’m following. Can you elaborate?”
- Influence: Be a bias disruptor. If you hear bias in promotion calibration conversations, start by asking if you can share some feedback about what you’re hearing and be clear about why it’s important.
- Ask others: “I want to challenge the group to come back to the core competencies of the role so we avoid potential biases that may show up…”
* – Mitigating Bias in Performance Reviews; Deloitte; June 22, 2020
** – How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews and What to Do About It; Harvard Business Review; April 12, 2017
*** – Biases That Benefit White Men; Business Insider; February 15, 2015
**** – Biases That Benefit White Men; Business Insider; February 15, 2015
About the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Digest:
Increasing representation of underrepresented talent and creating a space for all employees to thrive continues to be an industry challenge. As we strive to build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities within our company, industry, and cities, we are committed to sharing best practices, learnings, and insights through this ongoing series created by our DEI team.