• Rupert Angel

Which cognitive biases impact poor talent decisions the most?


Talent is like advertising, everyone has an opinion and are not afraid to express it.

What makes talent even more challenging is that talent is embedded in the day to day activity of managers. Their opinion get implemented.

Managers have their own pet theories of what talent really is and how to spot it. They are willing to share their views on people. They will happily pronounce on peoples' future potential. They will delve into discussions about peoples' inner personality and its implications. Even though most of what they are talking about is misleading at best and fatally biased at worst.

For my first job, I had to go through a “graphology” test of handwriting. This was known to be an unreliable test of anything, but a senior director believed it, so it happened. (See Authority bias below)

It is, of course, natural for people to think they understand people, it is one of the things that evolution has given us. We like ascribing motive to others, and confidently expressing our views about what other people are thinking. Theory of mind sets us up to talk a good game about how others think and act.

But talking about people and talent is an area which is uniquely prone to distortion and bias. Partly this is down to timescales, most talent processes and individual changes take time to show up and the change is hard to spot.

Partly this is down to complexity. Humans are the most complex thing we know of in the universe.

Partly this is down to the unique way the we evolved. The brain developed the cognitive biases and short cuts we use to make quick decisions. To protect ourselves and make our life easier.

We thought we would have a look at the research into cognitive biases and find out just how many biases get in the way of making well-intentioned talent decisions[i].

The cognitive biases that impact talent

Click on table to go to a sortable version

Just looking at the list above reminds us how likely talent decisions are to be prone to biases, social and decision making, and why it is such a tough area of business to get right. To put it at its simplest talent teams are up against human nature.

Clearly, some of these biases will have a disproportionate impact on minority groups, which can be by gender, by race or sexuality.

What can you do about it?

Those few organisations that have got it right over time, the P&Gs, Pepsi Co, McKinsey and JP Morgans of this world, have done better by getting three things in place

  • Very strong routines that have built up over time and been embedded into the organisational culture. These challenge the biases through group processes that surface personal biases.

  • Strong philosophy about what matters which link to the evidence of what works. Biases fail in the end because they don’t work. Google has been very public in its link to the evidence of what matters and why.

  • A clear Talent strategy of what the organisation needs to achieve and how it is going to achieve its aims. This gives the framework to test decisions against. It builds a stronger organisational point of view which can counter the natural biases of the individual. O2, at its best, had very clear and simple people promises that cut through the noise and aligned the people and talent desicions to the business.

Our belief is that to do well starts from the strategy. This informs the philosophy and this gives energy to the relevant routines.

Without this energy the routines appear like process and lose their ability to help make better decisions. The individual biases take over again.

To find out more about how to create a talent strategy

[i] List of cognitive biases https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

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