How management biases can damage workplace performance

Recruitment, and indeed management in general, is often riddled with biases that distort both our thinking and behavior, and a recent paper highlights just how damaging this can be to workplace performance.

The study found that when minorities work under a manager who was biased against them, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby their performance drops to meet the low expectations their manager has of them.

“We were able to use metrics—how fast cashiers scan items, how much time they spend between customers, number of absences—to track their performance,” the authors say. “But unlike many other jobs, the same worker works with different managers on different days, so we were able to compare the same worker’s performance on Monday with one manager to their performance on Tuesday with another manager.”

“When we compared the same worker’s performance under biased and unbiased managers, we found two things,” she continued. “First, minorities perform much worse under biased managers. With biased managers, they perform on average at the 53rd percentile, but with unbiased managers, they perform at the 79th percentile. Second, there was no difference in the performance of other workers under biased or unbiased managers,” they continue.

Discovering bias

The researchers tracked the bias of each manager by using an implicit association test (IAT).  The test was taken over two rounds, with participants having to sort a group of French and African names, and positive and negative adjectives to alternate sides of a screen.  For instance, the first round asked participants to group the French names with good adjectives, and vice versa, whilst in the second round these rules were reversed.

The theory is that if a manager is biased, they will be quicker at associating the good adjectives with the French names than they are when doing the same with African names.

That appeared to be born out by the evidence.  Whilst majority employees working under a biased boss performed as expected, minority employees performed significantly worse.  What’s more, the researchers worked to discount other factors, such as the age, gender or ethnicity of the manager.

Wide impact

Interestingly, the drop off in performance was not down to any overt animosity between employees and their bosses, but rather something altogether more subtle.

“You might think that biased managers simply dislike minorities and treat them poorly, or assign them to the least pleasant jobs,” the authors say. “But we don’t find any evidence of that.”

When participants were surveyed, there appeared to be little animosity between managers and their employees, although employees did reveal they were less likely to interact with a biased boss.

“It appears there’s evidence for what psychologists call aversive racism,” the authors say. “When you’re biased toward someone, you speak less to them, you’re more hesitant to speak to them and you’re less friendly toward them because you’re uncomfortable with them.”

“What it looks like is the biased managers just interact less with the minorities,” they continue. “When they need someone to clean, or someone to stay late, they ask the people they’re comfortable with.”

It’s an interesting finding, and the authors plan to further test the hypothesis, and indeed whether mandating more interaction between employees may have a positive impact on the productivity of minority employees.


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