Bias Eraser #4: Conformity Bias

“I’m so conflicted!” exclaimed my close friend and colleague. For months, Mary had been interviewing new candidates for a senior position, and she’d finally found someone she believed had it all. Great experience, social skills, and smarts. He had made it through all the hoops including one-on-one interviews with her entire team, including the manager. She was confident in her imminent decision, and the only thing in the way of sending out that offer letter was one final team debrief.

In typical form after interviewing a candidate, the team met to discuss perceived strengths and weaknesses. But foregoing a free-flowing discussion, Mary’s boss declared his opinion strongly and early: “He’s not a good fit for this company.” Once her boss had spoken, the team seemed unwilling to diverge from his comments, instead of spending most of the time pointing out the candidate’s shortcomings. As the feedback continued, the negativity compounded in Mary’s mind. Despite her confidence in the candidate upon entering the meeting, she found herself agreeing with the team and quietly accepting their consensus to get back to the hiring drawing board.

When Mary returned to her office and took a deep breath, she asked herself, “what just happened?” Hours before, she was certain that this highly qualified, well-vetted, and extremely talented candidate was perfect for the role, but her boss’s statement and the ensuing team discussion instilled some doubt. Was she wrong all along? Did her team really think he was the worst candidate ever? Should she go against everyone’s opinion? Was this all a case of the Conformity Bias?

What Is Conformity Bias?

The Conformity Bias is best described as a tendency for people to change their opinions or behavior based on group peer pressure. Social psychology circles have researched conformity bias for decades. One famous experiment by Asch showed that, on average, 75% of people conform to group pressure at least once, even when they know the consensus is wrong.

Characteristics of Conformity

The Asch study highlighted two different forces that led people to conform. Normative Influence comes from the desire to be liked and accepted in a group. Informational Influence is when a desire to be correct results in the tendency to look to the group for the answer whether that answer is correct or not.

Four Types of Conformity Bias

Another way to look at conformity is in four types that sometimes overlap:

  1. Compliance conformity happens when we internally disagree but accept influence anyway to gain approval and avoid disapproval

  2. Internalization is the true internal acceptance of norms that are compatible with one’s personal values and intrinsic reward systems

  3. Identification is when people openly adopt group norms to maintain membership within the group, whether or not they agree internally

  4. Ingratiation conformity, similarly to compliance, occurs when someone follows the norm to seek personal gain or social reward

Conformational Behavior: Unconscious Bias in Hiring

Considering that most hiring processes involve a team of recruiters, HR professionals, hiring managers, potential co-workers, and other key stakeholders, the prevalence and impact of Conformity Bias is significant. This results in overlooking well-qualified candidates and hiring poorly qualified individuals because a decision-maker unconsciously needs to be correct, accepted, or liked.

In the example above, Mary’s boss likely set the Conformity Bias in motion as the person in power when he voiced a strong opinion, and her team had an unconscious bias toward agreeing. After all, nobody wants to get on the bad side of their manager’s boss. The bias grew as the team succumbed to peer pressure while discussing amongst themselves. It concluded with Mary getting stuck between what she internally knew was right yet feeling wrong in the context of the group and fearing the unpopular decision of hiring this candidate.

Three Ways to Defeat Conformity Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious biases are common and very problematic in the workplace. Conformational behavior leads to bad hiring decisions and reduced workforce diversity if decision-makers don’t work to curtail it. There are direct ways to erase conformity bias from your talent decision-making.

  1. Use objective data whenever you can. Talent evaluation tools like PerceptionPredict provide talent decision-makers with unbiased information about candidates’ probability of success in a job. When this type of data bears weight early in decision-making, it reduces opportunities for flawed social conformity bias to draw misguided conclusions.

  2. Approach interviewing in a structured way. As I’ve written in my other blogs, structured interviews provide standardized questions for all candidates and objective response analysis. This way, a decision-maker reviews interview performance in terms of data, not a discussion or unconscious peer pressure.

  3. Document interview impressions before discussing the candidate. Many companies struggle to implement a fully structured interview process, and even when they do, groupthink and peer pressure can sneak in to compromise discussions. To avoid the influence of conformity bias in the workplace, require interviewers to immediately document their impressions of the candidate. Such a process empowers the decision-maker to evaluate the candidate free from corrupting social influences.

We can erase bias from talent decision-making. Getting it right means better hires and more diverse organizations. I’m here to help and answer any of your questions.

Don’t let unnecessary biases like societal conformity lead your hiring decisions astray.

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