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Managing Bias In The Workplace: An Organizational Behavior Perspective

Updated on July 16, 2012

Bias is more common in the workplace than you might think. Bias is simply defined as “a tendency to view things in a certain way that is often inaccurate.” There are several primary types of bias:

Types of Bias and Perception Problems

Primacy effect: first impressions often tend to have a disproportionally large effect on someone’s opinion. For example, an interviewer may decline to hire an interviewee who was nervous during the first few minutes of the interview.

Halo effect: perceptions are often influenced by the “halo” of existing knowledge. For example, a worker who is continually late (bad perception) may be blamed more often for problems, even if he’s actually a good worker.

Contrast effect: perception is also relative to the surroundings. For example, a lukewarm glass of water seems cool in comparison to boiling water, but the same lukewarm glass of water seems warm in comparison to iced water. Similarly, employees may be inaccurately judged by those around them.

Knowledge of predictor effect: Knowing some specific piece of information about the target may make a perceiver more likely to influence perceptions.

Similar-to-me effect: people tend to perceive others who are “similar” to them more positively than they perceive those who are “different.”

Harshness/Leniency/Average Tendency: Some people tend to be consistently harsh in their evaluations, while others are often too lenient. Still others rate everyone as “average.”

Attribution Theory

Actual perceptions are only half of the story. The other half is attribution. Whenever people make a perception about someone else’s behavior, they try to explain “why.” Attribution theory analyzes how people explain these causes.

The two primary types of attributions are internal attribution (an attribution that answers “why” with “some internal characteristic of the person in question”) and external attribution (an attribution that answers “why” with “outside forces”). Internal attributions deal with a person’s abilities, motivations, and personality. External attributions deal with luck, adverse circumstances, or other “external” factors.

Correctly identifying attributions is important. Why? An employee consistently tasked with difficult projects (say, making sales to new customers) may have lower performance in absolute terms than an employee consistently given easy projects (managing recurring sales to existing customers). However, the first employee might actually be more deserving of a promotion – their relative underperformance is only due to external factors, and the manager’s attribution should reflect this.

There are several types of attributional biases, which can have a strong impact on people’s behaviors. The first type of attributional bias is fundamental attribution error, which causes people to believe behavior is more a result of internal rather than external causes. Even in situations when external circumstances clearly are a confounding factor, many people continue focusing only on “internal” attribution – “you’re doing something wrong” as opposed to “you’re making the best of a challenging situation.”

Another attributional bias is self-serving attribution, which reflects people’s tendency to take credit for successes (“internally” attribute them) but run away from blame for failures (“externally” attribute them).

One final attributional bias is the actor-observer effect, which describes the tendency to believe that others’ behaviors are due to internal factors, but our own are due to external factors.

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