Bias Eraser #4: Conformity Bias

“I’m so conflicted!” exclaimed my close friend and colleague. Mary had been interviewing new candidates for a senior position for months and finally found someone she believed had all the right stuff. Great experience, socially-skilled, and very smart. He had made it through all the hoops including one-on-one interviews with her entire team and manager too. She was confident in her impending decision and all that stood in the way of getting that offer-letter out was one final team debrief.

As was typical after interviewing a candidate, the team met to discuss perceived strengths and weaknesses. But instead of a free-flowing discussion, her boss voiced his opinion strongly and early. “He’s not a good fit for this company.” Once her boss had spoken, the team seemed unwilling to push back on his comments and instead spent most of the time pointing out the candidate’s shortcomings. As the feedback continued, the negativity compounded in Mary’s head. Despite her confidence in the candidate entering the meeting, she found herself agreeing with the team and quietly accepting her own fate. It was back to the hiring drawing board.

When Mary returned to her office and took a deep breath she began to ask herself “What just happened?” Only hours before, she was assured that this highly qualified, well-vetted, and extremely talented candidate was perfect for the role, but her bosses statement and the ensuing team discussion left her completely conflicted. Was she wrong all along? Did her team really think he was the worst candidate ever? Should she go against everyone’s opinion? Or was this all a case of the Conformity Bias?

The Conformity Bias is a tendency for people to change their opinions or behavior based on group peer pressure. The Conformity Bias has been researched in social psychology circles for decades. One famous experiment by Asch showed that on average 75% of people would conform at least once to group pressure even when they knew the answer they were giving was wrong. The study highlighted two different forces that led people to conform. Normative Influence which is based on the desire to be liked and accepted and Informational Influence which is based on a desire to be correct and therefore a tendency to look to the group for the correct answer.

Considering that most hiring processes involve a team-approach, including recruiters, HR professionals, hiring managers, potential co-workers, and other key stakeholders, the prevalence and impact of Conformity Bias is quite high. This means that well-qualified candidates are being overlooked or that poor-qualified individuals are being hired because a decision-maker unconsciously needs to be correct or liked. In the example above, the Conformity Bias was likely put into motion because her boss, the one in power, voiced an opinion that her team wanted to agree with. After all nobody wants to get on the bad side of their manager’s boss. The bias continued to grow as the team succumbed to their own peer pressure as they discussed amongst themselves. And it concluded with Mary in conflict as she didn’t want to be wrong or do the unpopular thing by hiring this candidate.

Unconscious biases are common and yet so very problematic in the workplace. If not kept in check, they lead to bad hiring decisions and reduced workforce diversity. But there are some direct ways to erase the bias from your talent decision-making.

Use objective data wherever you can. Talent evaluation tools, like PerceptionPredict, are designed to provide talent decision-makers with unbiased information about candidates’ probability of success in a job. This type of data, used early in the process, reduces the opportunity for flawed human judgement from reaching the wrong conclusions.

  1. Approach interviewing in a structured way. As I’ve written in my other blogs, structured interviews provide a standard set of questions for all candidate and a clear set of standards by which to judge those candidates’ responses. This means that a decision-maker will review interview performance in terms of data and not discussion.
  2. Document interview impressions before discussing the candidate. Many companies struggle to implement a fully structured interview process, but even when they do, discussions take place and group think and peer pressure can sneak in. To avoid these negative influences, develop a process where interviewers are required to immediately document their impressions of the candidate. By doing so, the decision-maker can evaluate the candidate without social influences corrupting the situation.

Bias can be erased from talent decision-making. Getting it right means better hires and more diversity in your organization. I’m hear to help and answer any of your questions.

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