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How to avoid the trap of perception bias in the workplace

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

August 17, 2022

Perception bias is a pervasive issue that reaches all areas of life, but it’s especially damaging in the workplace. Left unchecked, bias can become deeply ingrained in your organizational culture, from recruitment and pay grades to work distribution and promotions.

Why do these issues develop? People unconsciously judge others based on superficial observations rather than skills or abilities.

Perception bias influences how we communicate and build relationships. By learning to identify it and weed it out of organizational practices, you can make your workplace more collaborative and beneficial for the entire workforce.

What is perception bias?

Perception bias is a cognitive bias that occurs when we subconsciously draw conclusions based on what we expect to see or experience. Once we make an assumption, we tend to look for evidence that reinforces it, rather than being open-minded and objective about a given situation.

This often happens without us realizing it because perceptions are entrenched in our cultural and personal history. Personal biases are influenced by a wide variety of factors, including:

Take movies, for example. How many have you seen where the villain has a physical marker, such as a scar or a limp? And what about high school movies? Nerds are socially awkward and wear glasses, while the academically challenged popular kids play sports.

These stereotypes exist because they’re easy for our brains to process. They simplify complex situations and allow us to make snap judgments about people without really getting to know them. The problem with perception bias is that it can lead us to make all sorts of inaccurate judgments. And these judgments can have real-life consequences.

What is perception bias in the workplace?

In the workplace, perception bias occurs when assumptions about how people look, think, work, or behave influence workforce dynamics. Bias can develop personally between individual colleagues or on an organizational level throughout the company culture.

For example, qualified candidates may miss out on jobs or promotions because they don’t fit the employer’s image of the perfect candidate. Or, some employees may be paid less than coworkers with similar skills and experience because they’re perceived as less competent or capable.

In recruitment, harmful perceptions can lead to a lack of diversity or reasonable accommodations for candidates who need them.

Recognizing perception bias

One thing to remember is that perception biases can be positive or negative. In other words, we may decide how to communicate and interact with others based on positive or negative assumptions about them. And when managers adopt this behavior, their leadership patterns may set the tone for team relationships.

For instance, leaders may attribute positive qualities to certain people based on surface-level perceptions. They then mentor and promote those individuals to give them more opportunities while alienating others.

Another example is consistently delegating larger workloads to people who are perceived as flexible and agreeable. Managers may overlook the fact that the employee is stressed and on the verge of burnout.

Not only are these practices bad for individuals, but they also lead to less productive, resilient, and innovative companies. Employees who feel misunderstood or unappreciated are less likely to trust and support their co-workers or share good ideas.

Over time, this can cause stagnation, communication breakdowns, and poor retention — three factors than can destabilize a company. Your organization may also miss out on the benefits of having a diverse, multitalented workforce that brings fresh ideas to the table.

Two real-world perception bias examples

Let’s look at how bias can affect how people collaborate in the workplace.

Mark works in an ad agency, and the team heads out for pizza every Friday. There’s no official invite, but a core group of younger people goes. Each week, Mark asks who’s attending, so he can book a table. Mark never thinks to ask the three older people on the team if they want to come. He just assumes they won’t be interested. While dining, Mark and his team casually discuss their latest project. They come to a consensus on some changes they want to implement.

In this example, Mark made assumptions about his colleagues based on his personal biases.  Consequently, he excluded coworkers from giving input about the project’s direction. If this occurs regularly, the excluded coworkers may feel like the team is ignoring their questions, concerns, and contributions.

Here’s another example:

Ahn’s manager is retiring, and she’s interested in applying for the role. She has relevant experience, qualifications, and support from her former boss and teammates. They think she’s a great problem-solver and communicator. However, the senior managers in charge of the decision are less familiar with Ahn’s leadership skills. They quickly meet with Ahn and decide she’s too introverted and not assertive enough for the role. In fact, they already have another candidate in mind who fits their ideal vision of a leader.

In this example, the senior managers decided Ahn wasn’t a good fit without giving her an objective evaluation. They even dismissed measurable information — her performance record and the feedback of her colleagues. The senior managers relied on assumptions instead of using the same criteria to evaluate all candidates fairly.

What are the consequences of perception bias?

Perception bias can cause a host of interpersonal challenges in the workforce. For one thing, patterns of bias commonly lead to discrimination in pay, training, accommodations, disciplinary actions, and work distribution. If the company offers unequal development opportunities, talented employees leave or disengage.

In terms of workplace socialization, organizational bias creates a poor team culture. People may feel judged, excluded, or unfairly targeted, eroding trust and communication. And when coworkers have ongoing conflicts, they can create a hostile work environment or destroy team morale.

How to avoid falling into the trap of perception bias

Everyone has ingrained beliefs that they draw upon in everyday actions. However, it’s important to try and start with a clean slate when meeting new people. Here are a few tips to help you communicate productively with others and steer clear of harmful assumptions.

1. Be aware of your own biases

The first step is to acknowledge your personal biases and understand where they come from. We all have them, whether we like to admit it or not. So, take a step back and examine your own beliefs and preconceptions. Why do you tend to gravitate toward certain people? Or avoid others? What is the root cause of these biases? Don’t simply dismiss them as the other person’s fault or decide you just aren’t ‘clicking’ with that individual.

2. Avoid making assumptions about people

A core reason for perception bias is that we often make snap judgments about people without getting to know them. We see someone and automatically assume we know what they’re like based on unrelated experiences. Instead of making assumptions, try to get to know the person in front of you. Talk to them, ask questions, and see if your assumptions hold up (hint: they probably won’t).

3. Be open-minded

Being open-minded and empathetic is one of the best ways to avoid perception bias. And the best way to do that is to expose yourself to a wide range of people and cultures. The more you meet people from different backgrounds, the more you challenge your stereotypical assumptions. Looking at a situation from someone else’s perspective will help you break away from personal biases and see people for who they are.

Top tip: if you’re a manager, try remote team-building games. Help team members get to know each other for who they are rather than what they look like.

4. Remove identifying information from applications

Tackle bias in recruitment by focusing on the candidate’s experience. This could mean taking away names, photos, and other personal details that open the door to assumptions. This way, you’re only left with the individual’s skills and qualifications, which are the most important hiring factors. By taking these measures, companies can level the playing field and ensure everyone has an equal chance of getting the job.

5. Ditch the ‘type’

When hiring, companies often have a ‘type’ in mind, which tends to be based on their current team. They know the kind of person they want for the job, and they only consider applicants who fit this mold. Unfortunately, it means hiring teams may automatically pass over qualified candidates who don’t fit the ‘type’ before they’ve even had a fair shot.

Instead of looking for a specific type of person, define what you want a new hire to achieve in the role. This approach focuses on qualifications and results rather than an image or superficial interactions. As a result, you’ll have a better chance of finding the best person for the job, regardless of their background or appearance.

6. Ask for work samples

Asking for work samples instead of relying on resumes or CVs allows you to see an applicant’s realistic capabilities. Work samples can be anything from writing samples to code snippets to design portfolios. By seeing what an applicant has done, you’ll get a better sense of how they’ll perform in the role.

7. Use transparent scoring criteria

When interviewing or evaluating people, it’s important to have consistent, transparent scoring criteria in place. Everyone will be judged on the same standards. There’s less room to inject personal bias when you must back up decisions with facts. The scoring criteria should only include skills and qualifications relevant to the job and apply evenly to all applicants.

8. Be inclusive

Aim to build a workplace inclusive of different personality types, abilities, and communication styles. For example, don’t assume someone isn’t motivated or qualified to lead if they prefer written communication over frequent meetings.

Whenever possible, offer more than one solution or accommodation to get things done. In many cases, we assume whatever works best for us is the right way. Try to overcome this restrictive thinking by basing important decisions on direct feedback. Whether you’re planning company activities, creating new policies, or assigning tasks, find out what works for others and try to compromise.

9. Make your workplace flexible

Perception bias can cause you to develop a rigid company culture that isn’t easily adaptable to different circumstances. For instance, managers might assume younger people prefer chat apps and older people prefer email and face-to-face communications. Or, the company might assume someone isn’t a hard worker if they value work-life balance or need to take time off for family obligations.

In reality, everyone has individual preferences at different times. Consider investing in various communication tools to even things out and avoid forcing people into an unsuitable work situation. You have countless options, from diagramming software to project management tools. Supporting your employees and coworkers will encourage them to stick around and give their best effort.

Final thoughts

Perception bias is dangerous and can motivate us to make all kinds of wrong assumptions about others. Whether hiring an employee or just meeting someone new, we need to be aware of personal biases and take steps to fight them.

Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human.” Let’s not forget it: biases are part of what makes us human. It’s impossible to overcome every possible bias, but you can confront them. Focus on building empathy, questioning your assumptions, and fostering habits that make the workplace inviting for everyone.

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