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Lesson 3: (Shemini) – Moving past the first impression––The halo effect at work
“Your first impression of a thing sets up your subsequent beliefs. If the company looks inept to you, you may assume everything else they do is inept.” –– Daniel Kahneman
“Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hooves, with clefts through the hooves, and that chews the cud—such you may eat” Leviticus 11:2–3.
“…and the swine—although it has true hoofs, with the hoofs cleft through, it does not chew the cud: It is impure for you” Leviticus 11:7.
Food restrictions were among the commandments presented to the Israelite people in the Sinai desert (these restrictions today are among the factors determining kosher and non-kosher foods). Only animals with two features–has a split hoof and chews its cud (ruminates)–were permitted for consumption, with no further explanation for these restrictions. Cows, sheep, and goats were the animals commonly permitted to eat.
Thus, animals characterized by only one of these features were prohibited and designated as ritually “unclean.” The verses following these restrictions caution us not to overgeneralize and be swept away by observing only one of the desired features. For example, among the prohibited animals are the camel (although it chews the cud, it has no true hooves) and the swine (although it has true hooves…it does not chew the cud: it is impure for you). A well-known midrash (rabbinic biblical legend) illustrates this inclination to overgeneralize by portraying a swine stretching out its split hooves while concealing that it does not chew its cud, as if to say, “Look at me, I’m pure!”. This midrash presents the deceptive appearance of the pig to alert the individual to take in all relevant information before determining the animal’s status, not just the features that may check only some of the boxes at first glance.
First and second impressions
All of us are subject to the potential bias of first impressions, resulting in judging a person based on incomplete information. If a person is fat, does that make him lazy? Would a person with paraplegia be a less valued member of a hi-tech team? Does the young lady with a vibrant smile appear to be more competent and, thus, a more appropriate candidate for the plum assignment? This inclination becomes problematic when we falsely trust our judgments to be objective. These distortions can impact workplace decisions, such as hiring, granting promotions, distributing assignments, and performance evaluations, harming the organization. So, are we more likely to hire a person because we are taken with one piece of information––a shared hometown, hobby, religion, or race––without delving into other aspects of their background?
The halo effect predisposes us to think favorably of a person or company, whereas the horn effect predisposes us to think negatively of them. Both types of overgeneralization are triggered by our initial positive (halo) or negative (horn) impression. Even beyond initial impressions, when in the course of your relationship you find out that this person was awarded two doctorates or was unemployed for two years, these new facts may provoke a halo effect or horn effect, respectively. In the workplace, these biases manifest themselves when a manager is unduly generous or unduly punitive with a worker (you might remember this phenomenon from your school days when being unfaired at by your teacher). Any manager should be aware of these subconscious phenomena and take steps to neutralize them in their decision-making process.
Thus, the halo effect can exact an unacceptable price in several ways, such as overlooking fully qualified job candidates or recruiting a less diverse team. These effects (halo and horn) will likely generate tension and resentment among employees, resulting in some workers being held up to different standards. Since we are all human––neither angels nor devils––one recommended antidote for managers is to document employee behavior over time (positive as well as negative occurrences) and review this information when taking actions that relate to that employee. Some HR documentation tools may help formulate your judgments more objectively.
On the flip side of this strategy, to avoid being a victim of the halo effect, you, as a subordinate, should take the time to document your achievements and what you’ve learned from your disappointments to help balance your supervisor’s judgment. As organizations are operated by humans, objectifying critical work decisions will always present a challenge. Being aware of these natural biases and taking steps to neutralize them will undoubtedly benefit employees and the organization.
- As a manager deciding on new hires or conducting performance reviews, it’s best not to rely on memory but instead equip yourself with the notes you took during employee interviews or the documentation you have prepared over time, including concrete examples. Another clue to help spot the halo or horn effect in employee appraisals: Is there sufficient variation in the evaluations to support an objective assessment, or do you always assume the worst (or best)?
- As an employee who feels the boss is playing favorites (and she’s not favoring you), maintain a rational Adult-Adult relationship with her rather than a whining Child-Parent relationship. Look for ways to make her aware of your accomplishments at work, such as submitting periodic reports that reflect your work engagement. In short, provide the boss with the documentation she may not have collected.
- Try this: Test yourself––Think of your favorite and least favorite work colleagues. Try to evaluate whether these extreme opinions result from identifying a cluster of qualities you admire or scorn or derive from a single outstanding feature (positive or negative). The latter case could mean you have applied a halo or horn effect and will do well to reevaluate your judgment.
Genesis Rabba 65:1