It isn’t that those present are not talented: they are.
It’s not that they’re not well-intentioned: they are.
It’s just that affinity bias remains well-entrenched – while its tentacles might be invisible, they’re strangling talent that doesn’t ‘fit’ and the visibility of that is, unfortunately, obvious.
One of the obstacles to hiring talent without succumbing to affinity bias is the idea of ‘culture fit’. It’s a distortion of the ‘person-culture-fit’ equation that has long guided hiring and promotion policies.
But it has flaws. When a candidate has similar background, experiences, or strengths as the hiring manager, it’s easy to mistake that sense of ‘click’ and alignment between them as individuals for alignment between the person and the organisation.
And those involved in the hiring process tend to see themselves as great judges of both talent and fit, even though that most likely means that they are ‘trusting their gut’.
Trusting your gut increases the chance of affinity bias
Trusting your gut is something many see as a sign of wisdom and intuition, but as a decision making process it usually increases bias as it relies on nebulous criteria and reduces decision-making scrutiny.
This alone means that some great talent will go unnoticed.
We don’t feel affinity, we don’t get the ‘click’, we don’t recognise the talent.
According to this article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, there is no representative scientific study that shows that culture-fit helps to predict whether someone will perform well.
We’re usually focused on the culture we want rather than the one we have, which calls into question the very idea of ‘fit’.
We’re better off assessing talent and potential, preferably using science-based assessments, unbiased indicators of past performance, and structured interviews.
But affinity bias also means that those people who are talented, but who are not like the hirers, may not even consider applying. This especially applies to those people who feel a sense of imposterism and identity threat.
Imposterism skews candidate pools, decreasing the availability of talent
Those who experience imposterism don’t see how they fit, they talk themselves out of applying, and so candidate pools remain shallow.
Imposterism locates the ‘problem’ of a lack of confidence and insecurity about capability and success inside the individual.
Given that imposterism is often linked to less-represented groups this feeds the dilemma of culture-fit.
Women and others from minority groups are often under-estimated. They’re given feedback that’s more about style than substance, for example their presentation style, rather than its content. This feeds into self-doubt, as @Ruchika Tulshyan and @Jodi-Ann Burey outline in the article ‘Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome’. And the cycle is perpetuated.
In 1978 Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes created the Imposter Phenomenon term: in 2022 we’re still talking about it. Why are we not making inroads into this, reducing the degree of sabotage that occurs despite high levels of talent and potential?
Why we still sabotage talent
David Gelles’ recent article in The New York Times gives us some pretty clear clues as to why the identification of a broad diversity of talent remains a challenge, and why imposterism continues on.
He calls out our seduction by Jack Welch, who died in 2020, and who is still hailed by many as the ‘greatest chief executive of our time’. Fortune magazine named him the ‘Manager of the Century’. He has come to epitomise, for many, what leadership is all about. According to Gelles, he is a role model for many, as well as the model against which many boards rate their CEO candidates. He, and GE, is the stuff of business school case study legend.
However, as Gelles points out, ‘almost immediately after Mr. Welch retired in September 2001 with a $147 millon severance package, G.E. went into a tailspin from which it would never recover.’ Behind the smoke and mirrors, Gelles points to a lack of transparency in how the business ran: in 2009 it settled sweeping accounting fraud charges that ‘pointed to decades of impropriety’ seemingly fueled by a ‘ruthless devotion to maximizing short term profits at any cost’, including by overstating profits to jack up share prices (no pun intended!).
So, when we’re selecting talent, whether or not we consciously agree with his approach and style, the unconscious schema we have about what good management looks like is likely to be informed by ‘Neutron Jack’. This could surely do with a good shake-out.
How to avoid sabotaging your best talent
To reduce the likelihood of hiring practices sabotaging good performers, we need to get clearer about what good leadership and talent actually is, and reduce the interference of outmoded and ineffective models. That in turn will reduce the extent to which people who look and behave differently from implicit leadership models feel like impostors and may not apply for roles for which they nevertheless do have the talent. You can:
- Avoid using the term Impostor syndrome
- Recognise that talent and culture fit are radically different, yet are often confounded in hiring processes
- Use evidence-based selection processes, with clear criteria, that reduce bias
- Reconsider imposterism as at least partly context-dependent: don’t expect people to opt-in, opt them in.
Shake up the system a bit, over-include a diverse range of candidates in opportunities as they arise, then let evidence-based processes help you to select the right talent.
Then the faces around the boardroom table will look different, highlighting the cognitive diversity of the participants, and perhaps a more virtuous cycle in the history or modern leadership can begin. Who will be the ‘Manager of the 21st century’? Let’s hope it’s not another Jack.