Anyone who has worked in the business world for any period of time has had their fair share of head scratching moments where a co-worker did something that was strange, frustrating, out of left field, or totally unexpected.
As a student of human behavior who tries to understand why we do the things that we do (often to no avail), I’ve had to accept that sometimes there just isn’t any explanation for why that person just did that really weird thing.
Sometimes, though, there are actually legitimate research-based scientific explanations for it. I like those. I’ve looked into a lot of them not only to satisfy my curiosity but because many of them are very useful in the business world.
There is a science behind influence and persuasion. There are research studies that show key factors that make some people better presenters than others. There is even cognitive and biological science around why we procrastinate and why taking notes by hand is more effective than using technology.
The Science of the “Halo Effect?”
I started to wonder if there was any science behind why some employees get that highly coveted “halo effect”, which in laymen’s terms is their ability to seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of the company leadership.
The halo effect is very real.
We’ve all known someone who has had it. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to have it. When you have it, every promotion comes your way. Every decision you make is a good one. Everything you say is right. Top leadership perceives you as their successors. You are “the golden child.”
Sometimes, new employees come into the company with that halo effect because we fell in love with them during the selection courtship process. Many of those new employees lose the halo effect over time as their imperfections start to surface. Some are able to carry it with them for much longer, though.
Why do some lose the halo and others keep it? Here is the psychology and the science behind it.
The Science and Psychology of Confirmation Bias
When I was a young guy coming out of school getting my first real job, my dad offered me some interesting advice. He called it “The 10 Decision Rule.” The rule was simple. Here’s how he articulated it to me:
“If you get the first 10 decisions right, no one will ever question your decisions again. They’ll simply assume you made good decisions and give you the benefit of the doubt from that point forward.”
I was quick to apply his advice. He had built a good career in the business world. I tried it. It worked like a charm.
Whether my dad knew it or not, the now famous (in my family and circle of friends, at least) “10 Decision Rule” is based on real psychology and science called confirmation bias. In simple psychological terms, here’s what it is:
Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.
Applying Confirmation Bias in the Business Environment
In practical business terms, if I quickly establish myself as credible through just a few good decisions in a row, a few good first impressions, or any other set of positive interactions, I am establishing positive confirmation bias.
In other words, any deviation from that positive perception is viewed as “not the real James” as long as it is followed by another good decision or interaction. People now believe that I will make good decisions and that they will have positive interactions with me. Anything different an aberration. I have the halo effect.
On the flip side, if I start badly, I have established negative confirmation bias. I’m in a hole. Even positive interactions and good decisions are viewed as me getting “lucky” or are written off under the pretext of “anyone could have gotten that one.”
If you’ve ever been in that hole, you know how hard it is to get out of it. The science of confirmation bias is what is at work against you in this case. I’ve worked with some managers and leaders who never got out of it. The negative confirmation bias was that strong.
The key is that early interactions matter a lot, so make them good ones. We’ve all heard about the power of first impressions. Confirmation bias is the science behind it, and the implications on job and career success are significant.