Our society puts a premium on positive first impressions. After all, it only takes a moment for someone to create a snapshot opinion of another person’s appearance, character, and attitude. After a bad first encounter, that judgment can be difficult to revise. Business professionals and young children alike know the essentials of making a positive first impression: Be timely, offer a firm handshake, and stand up straight.
These suggestions are certainly helpful and valid, but are first impressions always a worthwhile tool for evaluating other people?
The Pitfalls of First Impressions
A first impression is more than just a conscious assessment of another person. Psychology researchers claim that first impressions happen on a cellular level in our brains. Two Princeton psychologists found that humans form these swift judgments in as little as one-tenth of a second after meeting a new person. According to the Equality Challenge Unit, “Biologically we are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests. Social psychologists call this phenomenon ‘social categorization’ whereby we routinely and rapidly sort people into groups.”
This biological impulse to make snap judgments about people and things that are new and different may have been a useful survival mechanism in the days of hunting and gathering. However, it can create problems in the workplace, school, and home if left unexamined. If we rely too heavily on our first impressions, we may end up checking rationality and logic at the door and allow our hidden biases to affect our decision-making.
In the field of executive search, we often see the effects of unnoticed bias firsthand: Leaders tend to hire in their own image. People are creatures of habit, so they frequently operate under the assumption that if they hire someone with similar characteristics to theirs—the same academic background, race, personality type, or social circle—they will take less of a risk. While this strategy works sometimes, it can also hinder diversity within a company, stifling innovation and progress. The individual with the top pedigree education and experience might be perfect on paper but the completely wrong cultural fit for the role or organization.
Hidden Biases in the Workplace
Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the bestseller Blink, writes about when we should trust and ignore our first impressions. He writes, “Much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act—and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment—are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.”
These unconscious influences can have a weighty impact on the hiring process. Researchers at the University of Chicago conducted multiple case studies on Hiring Manager choices and discovered a common bias based solely on a candidate’s name and presumed race.
In the experiment, Hiring Managers were presented with resumes of equal caliber and experience. Some had perceived white-sounding names while others had perceived ethnic or foreign names. Relying on their first impressions, Hiring Managers had a 50 percent lower callback rate for the applicants with non-white sounding names.
World-renowned social psychologist and Harvard University professor, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, agrees that the unconscious mind is the culprit for this apparent disconnect between intent and outcome. She comments that highly regarded leaders may be surprised to discover they ignore or dismiss good ideas simply because they come from an unexpected or unfamiliar source, yet welcome the same ideas from a valued business partner.
But positive bias can be just as problematic as negative bias, according to Dr. Banaji. Giving unspoken, subtle advantages to certain employees or candidates is another form of hidden bias. For example, a Hiring Manager who is too smitten with a candidate who shares the same alma mater may not take the time to dig past surface assessments of other candidates who may be a better fit for the position.
Monitoring Our Blind Spots
We all have unconscious bias. Like the air we breathe, we can't see it, yet it is there; we can't touch it, but we can certainly feel its effects. Even in 2014, some communities are so homogenous that the lack of diversity is a challenging environment for those who may be seen as outsiders.
Whatever these hidden biases are, if left unaddressed, they have the potential to be harmful and counterproductive. We do ourselves a disservice by making misinformed decisions that can negatively impact human interactions—from hiring and leadership development to choosing where to live and which schools our children should attend. We live in an increasingly global world, so we can and should do a better job at keeping our hidden biases in check.
To address unconscious bias, we must first become cognizant of it. Here are some tips for keeping hidden biases in check:
-Seek out a team with diverse backgrounds and listen to them. Ask for your employees’ input and feedback regularly.
-Seek to mentor and be mentored by people who have different backgrounds than your own. Observe how they approach different challenges so you can learn from their experiences.