Want more content like this in your inbox once a month?
“The easiest person to deceive is one’s own self.”
All leaders like to believe they are impartial and objective when it comes to evaluating their team’s performance and providing feedback. However, as Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton's quote suggests, we may be deceiving ourselves about our ability to remain unbiased.
Despite the decades of advancements in leadership systems and manager training, cognitive biases continue to pervade your organization’s feedback practices. This affects your managers’ perceptions of team members and ultimately impacts their career growth.
One reason for this could be that these biases are unconscious. Most people have multiple implicit biases they aren't aware of. These biases manifest subconsciously in their day-to-day interactions with peers. So what does this mean for the 1:1 meetings across your organization aimed at helping employees receive feedback for their performance? Let’s investigate.
Cognitive biases prevent managers from providing constructive feedback
One of the most common cognitive biases that managers are likely to bring to 1:1 meetings is the confirmation bias. This bias refers to our tendency to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs and expectations. When it comes to providing feedback and coaching, confirmation bias can lead managers to seek out information that seems to confirm their existing opinion of an employee's performance while ignoring or downplaying information that proves otherwise.
For example, if a manager believes that an employee is not a good fit for a particular role, they may interpret every mistake or misstep as evidence of this belief. This can bar the manager from providing constructive feedback and coaching to the employee. This brings us to the influence of beliefs—how powerful are they in performance management?
A manager’s beliefs have a powerful influence on their team’s performance
Who’s held accountable when an employee performs poorly? While the employee is most commonly likely to be held accountable in such a scenario, the manager’s role in creating this outcome is often neglected. To understand better, let’s take a look at two interesting ways managers cause employees to perform poorly.
1. The self-fulfilling prophecy
The self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a situation where a person's beliefs or expectations about a situation influence the outcome of that situation. In the context of the workplace, this means that a manager's negative expectations about an employee's performance, behavior, or potential can actually lead to that employee underperforming or failing to meet expectations.
The modern concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy can be credited to sociologist Robert K. Merton, who first introduced the term in the 1940s. Merton's idea was based on the concept of a "false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true."
2. The set-up-to-fail syndrome
The set-up-to-fail syndrome is a concept that was first introduced by psychologists Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux in the late 1990s. They conducted a study in which they found that some managers were deliberately holding back certain employees, even though these employees had the potential to perform well. They found that this was often due to negative preconceptions or biases that managers held about these employees.
This syndrome can be seen as a negative manifestation of the Pygmalion effect—managers' negative expectations of certain employees can lead to a lack of opportunities for growth and development, lower job satisfaction, and ultimately, underperformance.
The set-up-to-fail syndrome is more destructive than the self-fulfilling prophecy because it is more deliberate in intent. In this scenario, a manager may have negative expectations or beliefs about an employee and consciously limit their opportunities for growth and development, effectively setting them up to fail. This can include providing limited resources, assigning low-profile projects, or limiting exposure to key decision-makers.
“Managers can make wiser, more ethical decisions if they become mindful of their unconscious biases.”
— Mahzarin Banaji, American psychologist
Why self-awareness is the first step in eliminating biases
Our biases are often like the air we breathe—so deeply ingrained in our thoughts and behaviors that we hardly notice them. They color our perceptions of the world around us, influencing how we interpret information, make decisions, and interact with others. But that’s also precisely why they’re so dangerous—because of their subconscious nature, we may not even be aware of the impact they have on our thoughts and actions.
Self-awareness is crucial for anyone who wants to eliminate biases in the workplace.
It requires us to take an honest look at ourselves, to confront uncomfortable truths, and to challenge our own assumptions. Creating self-awareness is not easy, but it is essential if to create a more just organization that assesses and supports employees equitably.
“Self-awareness involves deep personal honesty. It comes from asking and answering hard questions.”
— Stephen R. Covey, educator, author, and businessman
Becoming self-aware requires honest self-reflection and openness to feedback. It means being willing to admit when you are wrong and listening to perspectives that may differ from your own. It also requires a commitment to ongoing learning and growth. Ultimately, self-aware managers create a more positive and productive work environment where everyone feels respected and supported.
Overcoming biases in 1:1 meetings through self-awareness
If self-awareness is the key to eliminating biases, how can HR leaders help managers become more self-aware in their 1:1s with team members?
One approach could be to provide training and education on unconscious biases and their impact on decision-making and interactions with employees. This can include interactive workshops, online courses, or other resources like relevant 1:1 meeting questions that help managers assess employee performance without falling prey to their own biases.
A more straightforward approach would be to encourage managers to seek feedback from their own team members. Providing opportunities to managers for anonymous feedback can help them gain insights into their own behaviors and how they may be perceived by others. This can help managers become more aware of their biases and approach their 1:1s more consciously.
But these methods shouldn’t just be limited to managers or 1:1s in general.
A limited approach would be ephemeral at best and would fail to eliminate biases in your organization. Modeling inclusive behavior and creating a general culture of openness in your organization is a more practical, lasting approach to fight bias. Fostering a workplace culture that values self-awareness is the key to helping your managers become more effective and equitable leaders.
Biases go beyond 1:1 meetings and affect the entire organizational culture
When biases are present in the workplace, they can create an environment of inequality and discrimination that can be detrimental to employee morale. They can also lead to systemic issues, like the underrepresentation of certain groups in leadership positions or in certain job roles. That’s why the effects of biases are not limited to 1:1s or feedback but are a matter of concern for the entire organizational culture.
Without ongoing self-reflection, a leader can become complacent and fail to recognize when they are making mistakes or need to change their approach. Introspection allows them to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, understand their motivations and biases, and continuously improve their leadership skills.