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Why Companies May Be Overlooking Their Best Talent

Implicit biases and a preference for like-minded people may be the cause.

Key points

  • There are nine types of unconscious or implicit bias that may be guiding your personnel decisions.
  • Our brains may be "hard-wired" to seek relationships with those who are most like us.
  • Extraverts may have an advantage when being considered for promotion, but not necessarily during hiring.
Pexels/Marcus Aurelius
You may be alienating your best source of untapped talent by overlooking the people already working for you.
Source: Pexels/Marcus Aurelius

Smart employers are realizing that their biggest source of untapped talent is within their own employee ranks. In today’s talent wars, people are your competitive advantage. If you want to attract and retain the best, you have to figure out what’s preventing superstars from rising to the top.

1. Examine your biases.

Unconscious bias and implicit bias came into popular conversation a few years ago, and are now included in corporate trainings at organizations of all shapes and sizes. Examining your biases is a good starting point, and will identify any of the simplest reasons you may be overlooking top talent.

There are nine types of bias to consider:

  1. Conformity bias. This is the bias we experience from the desire to be accepted as part of a larger group. We may ignore our own perceptions, logic, or reasoning to conform with the actions and opinions of others. When evaluating talent, gather opinions from others, but if you don't agree with the consensus, listen to your gut.
  2. Beauty bias. Beauty bias is about more than mere attractiveness. It also refers to other biases related to physical attributes. Ask yourself if you're leaning toward promoting someone because they look like the person who came before them, or they resemble the mental image you created of the perfect candidate.
  3. Affinity bias. Affinity bias comes from thinking we may have a pre-established bond with someone. This could be because you share something in common, such as a school or hometown, or because they resemble someone you already like.
  4. Halo effect. The halo effect occurs when we latch onto one great thing about someone that outshines all their potential downsides. Don't overlook red flags!
  5. Horns effect. On the other hand, the horns effect occurs when one bad thing about someone overwhelms all their potential strengths. Don't allow one negative thing about a candidate to cloud your objective assessment of the strengths they bring.
  6. Similarity bias. We like situations, and therefore people, which are familiar to us. This bias may cause us to go with a weaker but "safer" candidate, someone we perceive as familiar enough to be predictable.
  7. Contrast effect. Our brains have a tendency to compare and contrast things we see in a sequence. This means candidates are often compared against the person interviewed or considered immediately before or immediately after them, rather than compared against the qualifications of the role itself.
  8. Attribution bias. This is the bias we experience when attributing someone's intentions to the observed outcome. The problem is, we tend to attribute bad intentions to negative outcomes, and good intentions to positive ones. Just because someone was previously overlooked for promotion doesn't mean their intentions or behavior necessarily "earned" that result.
  9. Confirmation bias. This is one of the most insidious forms of bias, in which we unconsciously seek out things which confirm what we already believe. Keep an open mind, and if something confirms your beliefs or suspicions, vet it accordingly.

2. Are you seeking out a diverse set of opinions?

One University of Kansas study suggests our brains are “hard-wired” to seek out like-minded people. “You try to create a social world where you’re comfortable, where you succeed, where you have people you can trust and with whom you can cooperate to meet your goals,” Chris Crandall, one of the study’s authors, said. “To create this, similarity is very useful, and people are attracted to it most of the time.”

With this in mind, when considering someone for advancement or development, it’s important to seek out a diverse set of opinions about that person. Talk with the people with whom that person works the most. Ask what it’s like working with them, what they rely on them for, or what they would never ask that person for. Take note of the common denominators, especially anything you may have overlooked yourself.

The good news is that the same study also suggests people can form equally strong, satisfying relationships, even with those they are not necessarily like. “At small colleges, friends were less similar—but just as close and satisfied, and spent the same amount of time together," Crandall added. "We know that people pick similar people at first, but if you go out of your way you can find excellent friends, and meaningful relationships, with people who are different.”

3. The extraversion/introversion question

Several studies have suggested that extraverted qualities are more highly rewarded in society than introverted qualities. Ever since, a tug-of-war has ensued between two popular solutions: make spaces more inclusive for introverts, as Susan Cain champions, or evangelize to introverts the benefits of extraverted behavior.

When it comes to hiring, extraverts may not necessarily have the benefit. One 2017 study found HR and hiring managers to be no more swayed by extraverted behavior than introverted behavior. But extraversion may matter when it comes to identifying candidates for promotion. The same study found that in its control group, comprised of non-HR personnel, extraverted qualities were slightly more favored. This suggests senior leaders and managers may be more prone to reward extraversion in their organizations.

Determine what really matters

For any role, create a profile that encompasses which combination of hard and soft skills will really matter for this role, on this team, in this organization. Again, don’t rely on a single source. Gather opinions from those who will work most closely with the person in this role: up, down, sideways, and diagonal.

If you want to avoid missing your top talent, focus like a laser beam on the traits and skills you really need. Our five proprietary competency models can help.