Overcoming Unconscious Biases

In Performance Conversations

Executive Summary | Humans are biased

Several behavioral and neurological studies over the years have validated that humans and biases go hand in hand. A bias cannot be right or wrong, generous or hateful, or good or bad. However, it does result in unfairness and removes level-headedness from the decision-making process.

92% of individuals said they identify as an ally to others that are different from them in the workplace. - A survey by Deloitte

Several behavioral and neurological studies over the years have validated that humans and biases go hand in hand. A bias cannot be right or wrong, generous or hateful, or good or bad. However, it does result in unfairness and removes level-headedness from the decision-making process.

When we talk of workplaces, biases can lead to irrational decisions. It can lead to employee resentment, burnout, and eventual churn. Businesses also risk developing a negative brand value due to discrimination and partiality towards certain employees.

Performance management biases make it difficult to:

  • Enable consistencies in performance evaluation
  • Offer coaching and feedback to employees
  • Create career advancement opportunities
  • Reward employees suitably for their efforts
  • Businesses can no longer afford to pass off biases as natural. It can substantially affect employee morale, leading to a dip in the overall business performance.

    There is a need for leaders to prepare mitigating measures proactively. But how is that possible? This e-book looks at unconscious bias in performance reviews, its types, mitigating measures, and the role of technology.

    Biasness is something that remains biologically conditioned and tough to eliminate.

    What is unconscious bias?

    Bias is a prejudiced opinion about people, things, and events. It can be overt or subtle, but it is always there to some degree. Unconscious biases are prejudices we hold against somebody without even realizing this might affect our thoughts towards them.

    Unfortunately for many of us, these feelings do not pop up in discussions soon. Instead, they stay below the surface where most do not notice their influence over behavior until something happens that makes those hidden attitudes come bubbling back out.


    For any person, including at the workplace, there can always be a misconception about unconscious bias. Most people think they would be the last person to have any bias towards other people. The problem also does not end there. Even if people are aware of the importance of diversity and inclusiveness, they might still have that natural tendency to judge others due to unconscious bias. However, this tendency does not make a person good or bad.

    It means people need to be aware of the presence of unconscious biases as a natural factor. They should also understand how it can affect the performance of others at work. Most important of all, any such bias during performance reviews can adversely impact employees and their morale.

    How bias affects the workplace?

    Unconscious biases, if not mitigated in time, can lead to employee resentment. They are likely to develop a perception that the organization lacks fairness and objectivity to judge and measure the performance of its employees. Furthermore, it can affect productivity, make employees less engaged, and also affect their wellbeing.

    Unfortunately for many of us, these feelings do not pop up in discussions soon. Instead, they stay below the surface where most do not notice their influence over behavior until something happens that makes those hidden attitudes come bubbling back out.

    Deloitte conducted the State of Inclusion survey involving 3000 individuals from organizations that had a 1000+ employee count. The report looked at how employees experience biases in the workplace. Here are the findings on the impact of biases:

  • 68% - Had a negative impact on their productivity.
  • 84% - Had their confidence, wellbeing, & happiness affected.
  • 70% - Felt less engaged at work.
  • Bias can have a significant impact on how well an organization compensates for performance.Many studies show that women often get paid less than men.In some cases, even when they perform equal work with the same qualifications or experience, it results in different salaries.
    Other research shows us that bias exists not only among male but also female business leaders. Both are likely to show bias towards hiring men and believe more in their competency. It thus results in varying pay scales for men and women.

    Types of unconscious bias and how they affect the performance reviews of employees

    Here are various types or biases in performance review. We also look at specific examples and how to overcome them.


    Primary Bias

    The inclination to give more weight and importance to information learned early than what emerges later is primacy bias. One example that managers often fall victim to this type of cognitive bias is they believe what was presented first from an employee will always be valuable or true. However, this is not always the case.

    Let us say you come across an employee who does not behave well with you the first time but buys you a coffee when you meet the next time. Even though that employee wanted to make up for the wrongdoings of the first meet, you might see it as scheming. You may feel that the person dares to buy you a coffee.

    If that person behaved well during the first meeting and bought a coffee in the next, you may think that the person is good. It is because of the first impression that person had on you. A primacy bias also focuses on recent events.

    The best way to prevent it is by looking at the performance of employees and feedback from across weeks and months. If you avoid only looking at the recent achievements, you can overcome primary bias.


    Recency Bias

    Recency bias is a psychological phenomenon where we focus on the most recent events in our memories. We do not consider the entire timeline. It can cause an individual or organization to short- change themselves by giving less importance to events from long ago that may have been just as important for them overall.

    Consider that you had a new employee who delivered exceptional results in the first two months and received everyone praise. However, around the performance appraisal process, their performance experienced a slump in the past two months. When rating their performance, you may only consider the recent nose-dive and ignore the achievements of the past months.

    Did someone complete a 3-month project? Great, send them peer reviews. You will have more data on how well they did. If that person completed internal training recently, request instructor responses for those learning sessions too.

    One of the most common pitfalls when collecting performance data is recency bias. You can avoid the negative impacts of recency bias by collecting feedback from your employees throughout the year. The employee must have completed a few projects successfully in the past few months.


    Central Tendency Bias

    Centrality bias is a common flaw in human beings, and it often manifests itself as the tendency to rate most items at or near midpoints on rating scales. Moderation can be excellent in many situations, especially where high stakes are not involved.

    However, it might not work well when dealing with performance reviews that require us to take firm stands about our opinions of others performances rather than just giving them vague good or bad ratings.

    Consider a situation where a manager completes the annual performance evaluations. However, everyone on the team scores a three on a five-point scale. It would not make sense if this was an arbitrary ranking system with no basis for comparison or judgment.

    If they got graded based on past achievements and future potential. 3s can be average even though most employees would have preferred something higher than the middle. By eliminating the neutral option, you ensure you are not influencing your ratings. You may think others will see it.


    Halo or Horn Bias

    We can often get swept up at the moment and make snap judgments about others based on personal preferences. It is a common cognitive bias where we tend not to evaluate all traits equally because some become more relevant. An attractive person's good looks or sense of humor can overshadow their non-performance at work.

    In this situation, it might be better if you took notice since one bad trait could have implications down the line. If some employees are proactive and outspoken, you may also consider them highly. It could lead you to rate other quiet employees lowly even if their performance was better.

    There are many situations in which employees may feel like getting an unfair review, leading to a negative perception of their performance. To make sure you do not fall victim and discriminate against individuals, consider various aspects of performance instead of focusing on one.

    Being good is not only about having specific skills but contributing positively throughout every phase. It can be from brainstorming sessions to project management over deliverables.


    Leniency Bias

    Leniency bias can be a tough one to fight. It becomes difficult to maintain objectivity when you give the same rating regardless of how an employee performs. You may be unable to identify who deserves more rewards than others, especially if all employees get equal scores on the 5-point scale.

    With equal ratings given to everyone, it can become difficult to justify the promotion or increased rewards given to some. Your top-performing employees may also experience dissatisfaction on seeing everyone getting rated equally despite inferior performance.

    Consider a situation of two employees, where one consistently outranks expectations and the other just meets the threshold. Despite the start difference in the output, a manager may rate them equally to avoid hurting the feeling of the one who performed lesser. It can lead to disgruntlement among the top performer, which could even lead to attrition.

    You may have been using a rating scale that is too high with top possible ratings. If you want your best employees to feel more valued, use scales that accurately reflect their performance. There should be a rating higher than “above average” for your top performers. It will make them feel valued and motivated to continue performing better.


    Confirmation Bias

    It is human nature to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. Confirmation bias is similar but can go deeper at times, leading you to believe in people who agree with you on specific things. It is also the reason why you could think differently about people who disagree with you. It happens naturally, yet this tendency may change your view of employee performance.

    You may have an employee who is a high-performer and likable. If others provide similar feedback, the manager will likely believe in it without second thoughts. On the contrary, if the manager receives the opposite comment, they might still ignore it no matter how valuable it is.

    Similar confirmation bias exists in Google search results as well. If you search for something that you believe in, the results will include what you believe in. There will also be opposite results if you have a conflicting search.

    The best way to overcome this problem is by forming a hypothesis that does not align with your initial belief. You can collect feedback from different people and see how it differs from what you believe. A sufficient amount of conflicting opinions can help you alter your view.


    Similar-to-Me Bias

    We all have an innate tendency to like people who share similar interests and skills, but it may be a bad idea in performance management. You may rate those with similar backgrounds more highly than someone outside of your group. In addition, giving higher ratings can negatively impact workplace diversity.

    A manager may rate an employee higher if they have a shared interest in graduating school, sports team, or other aspects. It could be injustice with other high- performing employees who expected better ratings.

    You can overcome this bias by making your evaluation specific to the employee's performance. Criteria-based evaluation will help you decide objectively and not rely on stereotypes. Your overall ratings will also be unbiased.


    Gender Bias

    It is common for managers to consider the attitude and personality of employees when giving them feedback. It can include both the feminine and masculinity traits as well. Studies have shown that when men receive feedback, it is more about work. For example, John should focus on improving his Microsoft Excel skills.

    When it comes to female employees, they are less likely to receive feedback that focuses on work. For example, Hanna is an excellent teammate to work with. The statement here nowhere talks about Hanna work and how she could improve. Such disparities often affect growth opportunities and lead to a gap in pay scales.

    Feedback can be a tough pill to swallow, but it is necessary to grow. When people have freedom with how they want to work, there is always room for bias. Everyone has their idea of what success looks like, which presents a cumbersome situation to structure everything. The focus of feedback should remain on skills rather than styles or personalities.


    Law of Small Number Bias

    It involves a phenomenon where leaders believe the attributes of a small sample population reflect that of the entire organization. There could be a team of top performers where a single person delivers 2x or 3x output. You may rate such people as exceptional and others lower.

    However, the low-performing members of that team might still be better than individuals in other teams in the organization. The overall ratings of the team may still be average despite all team members displaying exceptional performance. Calibrations are ideal for overcoming this problem.

    When you look at rating and reviews comprehensively, the understanding of you and others in the organization will align. It thus helps managers across the organization adopt a uniform approach to evaluate the performance of their teams.

    Role of leaders in overcoming unconscious biases

    Here is how leaders can lessen the impact of unconscious biases by tweaking their approaches.

    Check the existing performance review criteria

    How do your employees feel about when you conduct reviews? You may want to host an anonymous survey and find out for yourself. Before fixing something, it is critical to find out the gaps, and there could be no one better than employees themselves.

    When it comes to survey questionnaires, they should remain as simplified as possible. It is best to not leave any scope for ambiguities, and ensure that you genuinely give people the room to voice their opinion. Ask for ways to improve the process and what different approaches employees would have taken if they were in charge.

    Define expectations

    Employees must get educated about the effects of unconscious bias. You can then create goals and expectations for performance reviews. The best way to do this? Send out results so everyone is aware of how employees feel about performance reviews. Involve everyone actively and ensure you remain as transparent as possible.

    Before creating goals and setting expectations, ensure that you have solved issues that could affect the smooth progress. You can suggest having regular training programs so that everyone remains aware of the importance of performance reviews.

    Discuss with the management

    Getting the management into confidence is critical to ensure the success of your exercise. It is a given that unconscious bias exists, and even some leaders in management would know of it. However, explaining its impact on the organization is crucial. Explain everything in detail to make a strong case for the elimination of unconscious bias.

    When it comes to your team, you can also help them understand why your organization takes a different approach here. Help them understand why you do not fall into such traps. It will also help you take your employees into confidence and present a fair playground for everyone to succeed.


    Creating performance review committees and having multiple managers for added perspective during review meetings can be more possible solutions.

    4 Steps to create a continuous feedback culture


    Create follow-up surveys for employees

    It is critical to examine the results of your follow-up survey after several employees have taken it. Gathering feedback from these people will make sure you know what needs change for things to run smoothly. Using an analytics tool with advanced sentiment analysis can help make sense of qualitative data.


    Revisit your initial survey if needed

    It may help to go back to your initial survey if things are not working fine. You might have made some fixes, so check if that is the cause of the issue. Understand how you can solve the problem and the implications. If your business has experienced a shift in operations, that could also be a cause for concern.


    Create follow-up surveys for employees

    If any interim fixes are not working, you may have to go back to the first step. Understand the problems before you revamp the structure of your performance management. You may want to have frequent check- ins between managers and their team members. Similarly, you may not want compensation to rely on performance reviews. Whatever be the case, plan carefully to avoid repeating similar mistakes in the coming months.

    DEI Framework: Diversity - Equity - Inclusion



    It is all about addressing issues that can make underrepresented people get equal opportunity. When it comes to planning diversity, the planning team itself needs to display it. Diversity will work when you have inclusion and equity along with it.



    Equity helps people understand that everyone has a different background. Some might not be as privileged as others, thus requiring more attention. It is essential to add a level-playing field so that everyone gets the chance to perform to the best of their abilities. When there are no barriers for everyone to succeed, only the sky is the limit.



    Though inclusion is about getting 3 underrepresented people into the limelight, it might not solve the problem directly. It might be a struggle for some to feel part of the mix. They might need adequate support to ensure the transition is seamless.

    Using analytics to spot potential bias

    Using data to make informed decisions is critical for the human resources teams of any organization. Analytics becomes helpful to avoid the very problem of bias. They can also prevent themselves from showing prejudice towards certain members when decisions rely on data. With sufficient data to back the actions, it adds an element of fairness.

    For example, an employee may have received average feedback despite achieving all targets comprehensively. If they have helped achieve business goals, the related data can make a strong claim. If managers also did not have regular check-ins, it can point out a recency bias in performance reviews.

    The data will also help the management understand if their managers need the training to lead teams better. Employees will also get a voice to raise concerns if they had injustice with reviews. Adding objectivity to the process will eventually help improve everyone's performance.

    Going beyond the norm will also ultimately help businesses retain and nurture employees for future growth. Talent hiring costs are always on the higher side, which makes sense to avoid losing employees in the first place. When employees feel fairness in the review process, they will feel more confident about the management.


    OKRs can help reduce bias

    Unconscious bias can affect the operations of a business in many ways. It can lead to a set of demotivated employees who feel less engaged and committed towards organizational goals. It will eventually start showing up in the bottom line of a business.

    Setting and achieving goals is hard. It is easy to get bogged down in the details, or to get sidetracked by things that are less important.

    Without a clear system for setting and measuring progress, it is very easy to let biases interfere with goal-setting. You might set goals that you think your boss wants you to achieve, instead of what you really want or need to achieve.

    Huminos is an OKR software tool that can help reduce bias and keep you on track towards your most important goals. With Huminos, you can create measurable objectives and track your progress towards them in real time.Get a FREE, 90-day trial of the software today. Login to www.huminos.com for more details.


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