The story of the halo and the horn…

Halo effect

The ‘halo effect’ is a psychological phenomenon first identified by Edward Thorndike in 1920. It has far-reaching implications within the workplace, affecting everything from individual workload management to team dynamics and leadership perceptions.

The halo effect occurs when an observer’s overall impression of a person, brand, or product influences their feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties.

The halo effect in action

In the workplace, this may mean that an employee’s strengths in one area could lead to a positively skewed perception of their abilities across the board.

The ‘horn effect’ is essentially the opposite of the halo effect, but it operates under the same principle of cognitive bias. It occurs when a negative trait or characteristic observed in an individual influences the overall perception of that person, leading others to view them more critically across all areas of their performance and behaviour. This can have significant implications for employees in the workplace.

The horn effect in action

Horn effect behaviour displayed by a manager pointing the finger at an employeeImagine you’re an employee who, on one occasion, delivers a project slightly later than the deadline. If the horn effect takes hold, this single incident could disproportionately colour your manager’s and colleagues’ view of your overall work ethic, reliability and performance, even if you’ve previously demonstrated punctuality and diligence. This biased perception might lead to fewer opportunities for challenging projects, promotions or professional development, unfairly hindering your career progression.

The horn effect also has the potential to sour relationships between colleagues. If an employee is unfairly judged based on one or two aspects of their behaviour, it may lead to a lack of trust and cooperation from their teammates.

Victoria Stakelum, a psychologist and executive coach, says this about the horn effect, ‘An example of this might be when an individual is unconsciously considered less capable because they are overweight, and treated differently on this basis. Whilst we might find it appalling to imagine that this type of prejudice occurs, there is a lot of evidence to confirm that such unconscious bias is rife in the workplace.’

According to Lydia Smith, writing for Yahoo Finance, such biases can be present in salary arrangements. She echoes Stakelum’s words and says that according to research by LinkedIn, discrimination regarding weight is common in UK workplaces. Workers classed as obese are paid £1,940 ($2,457) less per year than their colleagues, with women classed as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’—according to their BMI—receiving £8,919 less on average each year than their male coworkers.

In addition, almost a quarter of workers (21%) who are overweight felt they had been passed over for a job or a promotion because of their weight.

Being constantly viewed through a negative lens can impact an employee’s self-esteem and motivation. This, in turn, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where the employee’s productivity and quality of work begin to decline, not because they’re incapable or unmotivated, but because the environment they’re in chooses not to foster their success.

Female manager wading through information to find help with overcoming workplace biasesOn the flip side, an employee perceived as particularly competent in one area might find themselves burdened with an unrealistic workload based on the assumption that their high performance extends to all tasks. This can lead to burnout, decreased productivity, and even resentment within teams.

Unconscious biases can affect people’s judgement and decision-making. For example, an employee under the halo effect might prioritise tasks they believe will reinforce their positive image when organising their working day, potentially at the expense of more critical work. Career-wise, such biases can limit opportunities for development and advancement, as decisions about promotions or assignments are made based on perceived rather than actual competencies.

The halo and horn effects also play a role in first impressions and ongoing relations among colleagues. An employee might unconsciously favour or discriminate against new acquaintances based on irrelevant characteristics, such as appearance or initial interactions. This can lead to an imbalanced team dynamic, where certain voices are undervalued whilst others are overemphasised, which may hinder collaboration and innovation.

 

How can leaders and managers address biases their employees may not know they’re exercising?

Awareness and intervention at the leadership level are crucial strategies towards mitigating the impacts of the halo and horn effects and other unconscious biases in the workplace.

  1. Implement unconscious bias training for all employees, focusing on recognising and counteracting snap and unfounded judgements. This should include practical exercises to help staff identify their biases and learn strategies for objective evaluation.
  2. Use structured interviews and standardised criteria for evaluating candidates to minimise the influence of personal biases in hiring decisions. Encouraging diversity on hiring panels may also result in multiple perspectives, reducing the risk of biased judgements.
  3. Develop a performance evaluation system focusing on specific, measurable outcomes rather than subjective impressions. This approach helps recognise all employees’ contributions fairly and reduces the impact of the halo effect on career progression.
  4. Foster an environment where constructive feedback is encouraged and valued, both from leadership and among peers. Regular, honest feedback can help correct misconceptions arising from the halo and horn effects and support continuous improvement.
  5. Urge employees to reflect on their biases and how these may affect their interactions and decisions. Self-awareness is a powerful tool in combatting unconscious bias and fostering a more inclusive workplace.
  6. Establish mentorship programmes that pair employees from different backgrounds and levels of expertise. Such initiatives can help break down stereotypes and broaden perspectives, benefiting both mentors and mentees.
  7. Shift the focus from individual achievement to team success. Valuing the contributions of all team members and recognising and rewarding collaborative efforts can help counteract the halo and horn effects.
  8. Business leaders should model the behaviour they wish to see, demonstrating fairness, openness to feedback, and a commitment to personal growth. Leadership that actively challenges biases sets a powerful example for the entire organisation.

By recognising the impact of unconscious bias, employees and employers can ensure that performance and potential are judged as objectively as possible, leading to a more equitable and motivated workplace.

 

Our Jigsaw Discovery Tool is an innovative exercise that is useful for all who take part, regardless of their position in the company and their personality type. Understanding others as well as ourselves is hugely important for any team if it wishes to build on its strengths and turn its weaknesses into positives and/or learning opportunities. Call 01924 898930 for more information or visit hello@jigsawdiscoverytool.com.

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