Have You Created An In-Group On Your Team?

If you are managing people, it’s likely that you are observing your reports in action, noticing what they do well and what they don’t, and forming judgments about their capabilities.  These are important activities, when done in the service of assigning activities that fit individuals’ strengths, providing relevant feedback and coaching in areas of weakness, and creating development plans.


However, it’s not uncommon that a manager will use this information to conclude which of her reports are competent and which are not, and, on that basis, to value and reward those different reports’ contributions accordingly.  Have you, perhaps, done this with your own reports?


Why Your Judgments About Your Team Members May Not Be Rational

You may think you’re being rational, recognizing and valuing excellence, but you’re probably not.  Managers’ judgments about competence are subjective – related to particular qualities those managers themselves value. For example, you may value how quick a person is, how effectively they can substantiate their point of view. And you may judge as incompetent a person who is more hesitant, who has a harder time substantiating a viewpoint, or who might tend to put ideas on the table before they’re fully baked. Another manager may value conceptual ability, the ability to strategize and clarify vision. That manager will then see concrete thinkers, who are more comfortable in the arena of implementation, as less-valued contributors.  In each case, the manager is non-rationally valuing a particular trait, and chances are this is a reflection of that manager’s own style and strengths. We tend to prefer and value others who are like us.


Sociologists call this in-group/out-group bias. Managers may not see it because they assume that their own personal definition of “good performer” is universal, when in fact it’s not.  Also, though managers believe their in-group and out-group preferences are a secret, these biases “leak” out. A manager’s direct reports can usually accurately name which of them are in the in-group, and which are in the out-group.


Negative Effects of Managers’ Biases

The effect of this bias is a vicious cycle. team members will lose or gain confidence, thereby reinforcing the manager’s judgments.  As groups develop a shared history, team members may lose or gain confidence, and as a result they may modify how they express themselves – or how they inhibit themselves. This just serves to reinforce managers’ biases about the relative value of their reports’ input.


Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux wrote about this several years ago in HBR, calling it the Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome. When an employee makes an error, the manager responds by monitoring the employee more closely, taking back approval power over the employee’s decisions, requiring more documentation, and critiquing the employee’s behavior more in meetings. The employee interprets these behaviors as lack of trust and confidence, which increases self-doubt and leads to a sense of learned helplessness. The ensuing behaviors simply reinforce the manager’s fears about the employee’s incompetence. And the cycle continues.


What Can You Do, To Keep Your Biases In Check?

It’s likely that you don’t want to have this effect – that you want all your employees to perform to their maximum potential. So what might you do? Here are some questions you can ask yourself, to keep yourself aware of the subjective nature of your own views.


  • What qualities do you most appreciate in an employee (what’s your definition of “good”)?  Think about the employees you most appreciate – what are their weaknesses and development needs?


  • What qualities most frustrate you  (what’s your definition of “bad”)? Think about the employees you find most frustrating – what strengths do they possess, and how might you help them fully utilize those strengths?


  • Have you drawn conclusions about an employee’s capability based on one episode or mistake, without discussing the episode with the employee?


  • What do you do and say that might inhibit out-group members’ performance? For example, do you monitor their actions more closely? Request more frequent updates? Ignore or criticize their contributions in meetings?


If you can shift your perspective on who’s in and who’s out, your new attitude is likely to manifest itself as a more equitable treatment of your reports, and a better opportunity for your less-preferred reports to flower.



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