The Science of Assessing

By Katy Tynan

Listening is the art of gathering information, but once we have that data, what we do with it as leaders is really what matters. As we move into a discussion of the practice of assessment, we need to talk about how we each see the world differently, and to consider that our perspective on the world, our life experiences, and our work experiences, strongly influence how we respond to others.

As a leader, your goal is to ideally be as objective as possible about how you gather and process information, how you make decisions, and how you approach and engage with each member of your team. To do that, you need to be aware of the things that might make you less than objective – we call these things unconscious bias.

While we tend to think of bias as a bad thing, and associate it with prejudice, the truth is that bias comes to us as part of the evolutionary process. A bias is simply a template we use to organize our perceptions of the world. It’s a default response to a situation or scenario that allows us to process information and respond more quickly. While a bias may be useful to us from an evolutionary perspective, it can also be a problem when it causes us to judge a person or a situation without considering all of the facts.

Let’s looks at few examples of well-known biases:

Confirmation Bias – We tend to give more weight to facts that support an opinion we already hold. If something confirms what we already think, we give that fact more weight than if it contrasts.

Conformity Bias – As human beings, we are social creatures. We’ve learned to live in groups and to cooperate as a survival strategy. As a result, when a group of people all express the same opinion, we are more likely to agree with it even if we believe it’s wrong.

Halo Effect/Horns Effect – When we learn something positive about a person, we tend to think of them in a positive way across the board. The same is true about something negative.

Attribution Bias – When someone has a quality that is a biological positive, such as being tall or appearing very healthy, we tend to attribute other positive qualities to them as well. This bias is thought to be the reason why many executives are taller than average. 58% of CEOs are around or over six feet tall, while only 14.5% of the population as a whole is that height[1] .

Affinity Bias – We tend to trust and gravitate towards people who are similar to ourselves. This is one of the most challenging bias types for both managers individually, and organizations as a whole, as it has a tendency to discourage diversity.

We know that bias is a natural part of our brain’s makeup, and it’s not possible to simply make those natural tendencies disappear. So how can we be effective at listening and assessing in light of the fact that our brains are making judgements in advance? The first step is to become aware of our own bias, and through that awareness, practice a deeper consideration and analysis of the information that comes to us, rather than simply responding based on our initial gut feelings about a situation.

Let’s say, for example, that it’s the day after the customer appreciation event. Everything went perfectly, and you have already received three emails from colleagues in the sales department thanking you and praising Marcus for his work on the initiative. You’re feeling great, when you receive a fourth email. This one is from a customer, and they are not happy at all. They claim that when they arrived at the event, they were turned away at the door by an employee who was incredibly rude. They didn’t catch the person’s name, but they describe him, as well as what he was wearing, and it’s a perfect match for Marcus.

How do you respond? Because of confirmation bias, as well as the halo effect, you’re likely to discount this information and ignore it because it doesn’t conform to the other data points you have. When bias kicks in, you need to recognize how it might impact your response, and then do your best to focus on the facts, and gather more data to consider with an open mind. In this case, you might reach out to the client to hear their side of the story. You should also share the information with Marcus, and hear what he has to say. In both cases, you’ll want to use all of the active listening skills we discussed in the last section, and seek to fully understand all aspects of the situation so you can make a good choice about what to do next.

Assessing is the practice of evaluating information, and making a decision that’s consistent with the goals and values of the organization, as well as the team. It forms the foundation of a consistent management practice, because it allows you to pause and consider your actions, rather than responding emotionally, or allowing your natural biases to influence how you engage with people.