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Perception bias: How to recognize and avoid it (with workplace examples)

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While it can be difficult to acknowledge, we all carry biases based on our past experiences and how and where we were raised. These biases can affect both our personal and professional lives—and we may not even be aware it’s happening. Perception bias influences how we perceive people based on their race, gender, age, and much more, and if left unchecked, it can lead us to make poor decisions based on stereotypes and assumptions. 

Continue reading to learn more about perception bias, including the many different types of bias out there with examples and how you and your team can recognize and overcome them.

What is perception bias?

A great deal of information is stored in our subconscious minds, and this information allows our brains to make decisions and draw conclusions quickly, often without us even being aware of it. While this does make decision-making easier, it also leads to a lot of established assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes that are known as unconscious biases. Before we even speak with someone, we’ve made an assumption or a judgment about who they are based on how they look, speak, or the clothes they wear. 

Perception bias is a kind of umbrella term for many types of unconscious biases. These biases twist our perception with overly simplistic and inaccurate assumptions about who an individual is based on the group we associate them with. These assumptions or stereotypes could be based on how we perceive the person’s age, race, gender, clothing style, hygiene, and so on. These stereotypes lead us to make snap judgments about people without getting to know them. If we don’t recognize and confront these biases, we can continue to hold onto these assumptions even after we do get to know the person better.

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Common perception biases in management with examples

There are many different kinds of perception biases out there. Continue reading for some of the most common examples of perception bias in the workplace. 

Conformity bias

Conformity bias, also known as groupthink, is when you change your own opinion to suit that of the larger group. Peer pressure and our desire to fit in override our own better judgment. 

For example, say you have recently moved on from a previous job, and you are a new addition to a new team. The rest of the team wants to take a project one way, but you know from a similar situation at your previous job that the idea simply won’t work. Even though you’re certain it’s a bad idea, you end up voting with the group because you don’t want to make any enemies and have a desire to fit in. 

Sometimes it’s important to be a team player, but at the same time, if you feel strongly that the group is making the wrong decision, it’s important to voice your concerns. 

Affinity bias

Affinity bias, also known as similarity bias, is when you favor people who have similar interests or experiences as your own. It’s natural to have an easier time communicating with people who have similar personalities to our own, but this can have negative consequences in the workplace. 

For example, say you’re considering hiring two different applicants for a position in your office. While one of the candidates is more qualified, the other loves Star Wars, and you had a great time speaking about the classic movies during their interview. You think a fellow Star Wars fan would be a lot of fun to work with, so you end up choosing the less qualified candidate. 

These kinds of decisions add up. If the hiring manager at your company only ever chooses candidates they personally get along with and relate to, over time, your team will lack diversity. 

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is when you only consider the specific fraction of information that confirms what you already believe to be true. This seriously impacts our objectivity and critical thinking since we’re placing more importance on a curated selection of facts instead of all the facts. If something doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve already created, we ignore it. 

For example, let’s say you’re a manager and you believe one of your team members always arrives late. While it’s true they have arrived late to work before, 8 times out of 10 they arrive on time or early. But since you already think they’re always late, you only focus on the couple of times they were late. Because of the confirmation bias, you disregard the majority of times the employee arrived on time to fit the narrative you’ve already created inside your mind. 

It definitely feels good to be proven right, but when we don’t consider all the facts, our judgment is seriously impaired. 

The halo effect

The halo effect is similar to looking at someone through rose-colored glasses. When someone has a quality we admire, a shared experience of our own, or a personality trait we relate to, we may have a tendency to put them on a pedestal and believe they can do no wrong. We build up an impression of the person based on a limited selection of positive information. 

For example, you’re a manager and are assigning job tasks to your team. One of your team members majored in the same subject as you in school and got even better grades, so you assume they’re more than qualified to lead the project. Despite the fact you’ve heard other team members complain about their lack of productivity and bad attitude, you only focus on what’s positive about them. 

Overlooking negative qualities or work performance in favor of the often superficial qualities you like can end up negatively impacting team morale and productivity. 

The horns effect

The horns effect is the exact opposite of the halo effect. It’s when, based on one bad experience or one personality trait we don’t like, we assume we won’t like anything about a person. Outside of the workplace, this is akin to disliking someone just because they root for an opposing sports team. How can you possibly have anything in common with someone if they like the Toronto Maple Leafs and you like the Boston Bruins? 

In the workplace, the horns effect can occur if your personality and communication preferences differ from those of a coworker. Let’s say you have a warm and bubbly personality and like to chit-chat and make small talk with your team members. One of your coworkers, however, is very quiet and reserved and only gives one-word answers to your questions, and shows little enthusiasm. After a couple of attempts at conversation, you assume they’re simply rude or don’t like you. What have you done wrong? But in reality, that coworker is just shy and freezes up during attempts at small talk. Because they communicate differently than you, you assume everything about them is off and unrelatable. 

The horn effect can cause us to overlook someone’s positive qualities and assume the worst based on one or two interactions or events. Over time, they can lead to widespread distrust in the workplace, which will hinder the team’s morale, effectiveness, and productivity. 

Age bias

Age bias, also known as ageism, is when we make assumptions about someone because of how old they are, and this can work both ways. 

In the workplace, if you’re a younger employee, this could mean assuming older coworkers have no handle on new technologies. If you’re an older employee, it could mean assuming your younger coworkers are lazy or directionless. 

While ageism can work both ways, the vast majority of the time, it more prominently affects older employees. The most common forms of ageism in the workplace are employees over the age of 40 being passed up for promotions, raises, and other opportunities, as well as being the subject of bullying and ageist jokes.

Companies that do not value and protect the rights of their older employees could face legal consequences. In 2020, 14,183 workers filed age discrimination claims with the EEOC.

Gender bias

Gender bias, also known as sexism, is when someone carries unconscious assumptions about an individual based on their gender. In the workplace, this bias can negatively impact someone’s chances of being hired, receiving a raise, or being promoted. Gender bias overwhelmingly negatively impacts women. 

The most obvious example in the workplace is the gender pay gap. As of 2022, women earn 82 cents for every $1 men earn

Gender should play no role in determining the qualifications of an employee or prospective employee. When hiring a candidate or considering an employee for promotion, consider the individual’s accomplishments, not their gender. 

Name bias

Name bias is synonymous with racial bias. It’s when someone prefers one name over another, typically Anglo-sounding (also known as white-sounding) names. 

Name bias is most common when hiring prospective employees. For example, a study found that the names Emily or Greg are more likely to be hired than Lakisha and Jamal. Regardless of someone’s qualifications, the more Anglo-sounding names are more likely to be chosen. 

Name bias has significant negative consequences for a company’s diversity and inclusion. If your company is only hiring candidates based on their names, not only will your team lack diversity, you’ll miss out on unique perspectives and serious talent.

Learning to recognize and avoid subconscious perception bias

Be aware of existing biases and train your team

Understanding that we all carry unconscious biases is the first step toward combating them. Train yourself, your managers, and your whole team on what biases exist and how to overcome them. Investing in sensitivity training will help ensure everyone in your organization feels welcome, safe, and engaged. 

Sensitivity training could also be a team building opportunity, as facing perception bias together and understanding that we each have biases based on the way we were raised will help put everyone on more equal footing. Facing biases and investing in sensitivity training is not about judging each other; it’s about trying to do better. And each individual on your team, including yourself, has room to grow. 

Remove identifying information in the hiring process

Perception bias can be extremely common in the recruitment and hiring process. After all, this is where first impressions happen, and it’s an unfortunate reality that Anglo-sounding male names are more likely to be chosen. And not only that, but a candidate’s age is also likely to be factored into a hiring decision. 

To take perception bias out of the equation, remove all identifying information and personal details from your company’s job applications—that means removing a candidate’s name, age, educational institution, gender, and so on. When this information is removed, all you are left with is the person’s qualifications, experience, and skills. 

Ideally, the most qualified candidate will always be chosen, but we know this is not the case. Removing identifying information in the hiring process ensures a prospective employee will only be considered based on their unique qualifications—not on their race, age, gender, or social status. 

Gather constructive feedback to establish a continuous improvement mindset

No one can grow without constructive feedback, and while it can sometimes be hard to hear, it’s important to remember that no matter how far we’ve come, there is always room to improve. Seek feedback from your employees about the hiring process as well as how they feel they’re treated within the company, and always strive to implement that feedback. It’s one thing to listen to feedback—it’s another to act on it. 

Seeking feedback on a regular basis will help build a continuous improvement mindset within your organization. Listen to each perspective, keep an open mind, and always be prepared to learn. Your team will see this effort, and not only will it boost company morale, but it will also result in better employee attraction, engagement, and retention. 

Marlo is a strategic leader and full-stack marketer with 10+ years of experience developing and leading teams. Outside of work, you can find Marlo in the Bay Area with her daughter, husband, and dog.

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