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How the 'halo effect' impacts your workplace

Ezra Bailey
Cognative bias can be a blessing and a curse. Photo: Getty

Cognitive biases have a huge impact on the way we work. We underestimate how long we need to complete a task, leaving ourselves stressed out. We set overly ambitious targets, which we end up missing. Meetings overrun because we fail to allocate enough time for them.

These biases explain why even though human brains are capable of great things, they can equally trip us up. They lead to poor-decision making, negative interactions and a lack of good judgement - and are the reason why smart people can act foolishly.

And cognitive biases like the ‘halo’ and ‘horn’ effects can also impact how we perceive others too - and can transform our overall impression of them, even if it’s inaccurate.

“The 'halo effect' is when we form a view on someone based on a superficial trait or quality - such as their polished appearance or a particular talent for giving presentations - and generalise that positive trait to everything that they do,” says Victoria Stakelum - The Success Smith - a psychologist, NLP practitioner and executive coach.

“It may sound positive, but it can have a devastating effect on team and organisational performance,” she adds. “If someone is perceived as a high performer simply because of a specific and narrow trait - or worse still, because of some kind of physical trait, such as being very polished in appearance - it can constrain opportunities to give them appropriate developmental feedback in areas where they are not so strong.”

Not only can this be highly detrimental to their own development, it can also constrain team and organisational performance too.

“The effect on teams comes into play because people can often see the impartial treatment of an individual,” Stakelum says. “They may become frustrated or resentful that this person's shortcomings are not being recognised or addressed, which can in turn grow into poor team cohesion or even toxic team behaviours and interactions.”

However, there can also be a positive 'self-fulfilling prophecy' effect created when a manager has a high expectation of an individual.

Read more: Why is the UK facing a skills shortage?

In the 1980s, psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobsen's 'Pygmalion Effect' was coined following extensive classroom studies. A number of teachers were told that certain children in their class had scored exceptionally highly on intelligence tests, but this was not the case.

Over time, the actual test scores of those children significantly exceeded the test scores of those children not included in the list of 'bright children'. It was noted that the teacher actually treated the bright children differently - giving them more opportunities to answer questions, paying them more attention and giving them more stretching challenges.

“This was considered to demonstrate that an individual's performance can be as much about the perceptions of those around them as about their innate capability,” says Stakelum. “So if you are on the receiving end of the 'halo' effect, you might very well rise to the expectation of those perceiving you well. Not so bad? The problem is, the reverse can also be true.”

What is the ‘horn’ effect?

As you might expect, the 'horn' effect is the direct opposite of the halo effect.

“This is where a specific trait perceived as unappealing in an individual might lead to them being generally seen as less talented or capable, or drive an aversion towards them,” explains Stakelum. “An example of this might be when an individual is unconsciously considered less capable because they are overweight, and treated differently on this basis.

“Whilst we might find it appalling to imagine that this type of prejudice occurs, there is a lot of evidence to confirm that such unconscious bias is rife in the workplace.”

According to research by LinkedIn, discrimination regarding weight is common in UK workplaces. Workers classed as obese are paid £1,940 ($2,457) less per year than their colleagues, with women classed as “overweight” or “obese” — according to their BMI — receiving £8,919 less on average each year than their male coworkers.

In addition, almost a quarter of workers (21%) who are overweight felt they had been passed over for a job or a promotion because of their weight.

Read more: Why can too much positivity be toxic in the workplace?

“That self fulfilling prophecy of the pygmalion effect? It also works in reverse,” Stakelum adds. “So if you are prone to unconscious biases that lead you to assume certain team members are less capable because of a particular physical trait, specific weakness or personal bugbear, you are likely to drive a less favourable outcome - which will not serve you or them well.”

The key is to be more aware of the unconscious biases we may harbour - but this is easier said than done.

“Bringing objectivity is absolutely key to this. It is why interview panels should be carefully constructed to be as diverse as is practically possible and why interviews should have role-based scoring structures that remove subjectivity to a degree,” says Stakelum.

“Where possible, using 'blind' assessment and data to inform a selection or appraisal process can help limit room for very subjective or personal decisions. It is also helpful to train people in the basic psychology of unconscious bias,” she adds.

In addition, managers and leaders should lead with integrity, striving to understand the ways that such biases can limit an organisation’s success. “My research on mindfulness and empathy has demonstrated that regular practice of mindfulness coupled with short centering practises can have a positive effect on an individual's ability to effectively evaluate and compassionately engage with another person,” says Stakelum.

“This is a vital skill for any leader and an important antidote to the natural human psychology that tends towards judgement, snap evaluations and unhelpful subconscious biases.”

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