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For background, I work in a small tech company (~30 people) in the United States, and I have 12 years of experience in my field. I lead (but do not manage) a team of less experienced people in my field. I am the most experienced person in my field at my company. My manager has a different set of skills, and does not work on projects along side members of my team.

I've been with my current company a little over 3 years. Over the course of that time, I've become increasingly aware that my direct manager has two unhelpful traits.

In General:

  1. They form very strong opinions about things without a lot of evidence to support it, and maintain a strong hold on those opinions even when presented with contrary evidence
  2. Their evaluation of people's performance seems to be highly influenced by if they like or dislike that person's personality

To me, these traits seem pretty clear examples of cognitive biases; specifically a combination of confirmation bias, belief revision bias, and affinity bias. We all have cognitive biases, and we're all relatively blind to our own. But I've not worked with anyone who has exhibited them as strongly as my manager.

They mean well, but they're unaware of these biases, which are impacting me and my team.

Specifically:

  1. I'm very proud of one member of my team's work. Call them Team Member A. This person has learned a lot over the past few years, is a hard worker, and successfully synthesizes knowledge from many different domains to inform their work. However, my manager thinks they're undisciplined and slow. This opinion can be traced back to Team Member A's first project with us, where they spent more time on tasks than my manager thought they should. Despite all subsequent projects going better and my efforts to advocate on their behalf, my manager still has this opinion, and I believe it's holding back Team Member A's advancement in the company. I know this because my manager and I discuss the development of members of my team. Also, Team Member A is introverted, and my manager is extroverted and enjoys the company of extroverts more.

  2. Team Member B is also a hard worker, but has trouble synthesizing knowledge from different domains to inform their decisions, and has a narrower skillset than Team Member A. Overall, they're less able to contribute to the success of projects. However, Team Member B is gregarious and extroverted. My manager hired them into a higher role than Team Member A, and seems eager to continue to advance them, despite my advice that they need to grow their skills in certain areas first.

  3. Team Member C has been struggling with some aspects of the job, despite my best efforts to help. I meet with them often to help them prepare, but sometimes that preparation doesn't stick. My manager has seen this and assumed that I've been neglecting to help Team Member C prepare. When they spoke with me about it, I told them otherwise, and even shared the dates and times I met with Team Member C. But that didn't seem to make an impact on the opinion that I was neglecting to help Team Member C. We're growing as a company, and I feel like this will negatively influence my advancement. I'm also introverted.

The Question

I generally enjoy working at this company, and don't think my manager is a bad person. How do I tactfully mitigate the effect of my manager's cognitive biases? I don't think a direct and honest conversation about it would be received well, but I also don't want to do nothing about it.

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  • I suspect because extroverts typically give the impression of being more confident, that confidence is instilling a false belief in the manager about capability. The ability to communicate freely may just be a specific property that your manager values. Mar 17 at 13:00
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    Also, I probably wouldn't be that inclined to assume the actions of the manager are a result of cognitive bias. You are, of course, making an assumption about what your manager should be interested in when it comes to deciding which employees should be promoted. Mar 17 at 13:04
  • @GregoryCurrie The introverts on my team communicate freely and effectively, just as well as the extroverts. The examples I provided are not exhaustive, and only the most recent. There are several other examples not related to personality or interpersonal relationships that have led me to confidently conclude that cognitive bias is at play.
    – Guild
    Mar 17 at 13:22
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    No need to feel puzzled. It is quite common to question the preconceptions presented in a question. Mar 17 at 14:43
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    Managers are human and will like some people more than others no matter what the evidence is. As human beings, we want to work with those we like. There is no way to overcome these trends.
    – David R
    Mar 17 at 15:05

3 Answers 3

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I suspect a large part of your problems is because you don't seem to have a formalised assessment system. Basically, when it comes to advancement, it comes down to the managers feel on who is the better candidates.

If you have a system of key criteria, at least then you can be more specific about the skills and weaknesses of the different employees. It also means that you gregarious, outgoing employees can't dominate across the board. They may excel in communication, but that is one of a few factors. Of course, these factors may not be weighted evenly.

If your manager thinks communication is the most important aspect, then so be it. Your manager may think work speed is more important that preciseness. At least you can have specific arguments about criteria.

If you suspect good employees are getting undervalued, you probably have an obligation to try to ensure the company retains their services, by ensuring they have advancement opportunities in other teams. You should be honest with these employees about their situation and encourage internal transfers if they are unhappy.

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  • The introverted members of my team communicate just as well as the extroverted ones. It's not an issue of communication.
    – Guild
    Mar 17 at 13:25
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    @Guild I think you are focusing on the wrong part of the answer. You have an opinion of why your manager is preferring certain team members over others. If the company had a formalized assessment system, team members would be judged against written goals or metrics, not against two different sets of metrics kept in you and your manager's heads. Setting formal performance metrics will help everyone get on the same page about what it takes to advance. If the manager writes the goals, it makes them "theirs" and short-circuits the cog bias.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 17 at 14:35
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    @Guild For some people, being outgoing and extroverted goes hand in hand with being a good communicator. The truthfulness of that doesn't matter. First step is getting those metrics down, and then you can determine how to assess them. Mar 17 at 14:41
  • This answer would be highly relevant if this were a larger organisation, and the OP had management responsibilities. As team-lead, the OP can propose a set of performance metrics to the manager, but given the problems with their decision-making, it sounds highly unlikely that the suggestion would be welcomed or accepted. Also, in small companies, staff are often expected to cover a wide range of roles, as part of the natural growing process of the company, which does make the objective measurement of an individual's performance quite difficult.
    – jayben
    Mar 20 at 12:04
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    @Guild Why do you think getting the manager to commit to written down goals would not help? If the manager writes them, their bias would be toward assessing people against how well they achieved those goals. You might not like the goals they come up with, but people would know what they need to do to advance instead of the situation you have now. It's certainly a more constructive way to interact with your boss than assuming you've correctly diagnosed some psychological issue based on your understanding of a Wikipedia article.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 22 at 13:47
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You say your manager has cognitive bias, I'd say they are pig-headed, and sadly this is a very common situation, and I can't imagine that you will be able to alter their attitude to you, while you are in your current post.

Have you considered asking to become a manager of the team? If the company is expanding, and you are the most technically knowledgeable person, then you are a valuable asset to the company; they won't want to lose you, so a promotion request should be sympathetically received. Also I'm guessing your boss would really like a quiet life, without having to intervene in matters they don't really understand, so your offer to take on full management duties might be well received.

If your response is "I'm happy as a team lead, I don't want to be a manager", my answer would be that you are already doing the difficult part of management, but with the added frustrations of the arbitrary decisions from above - responsibility without authority, which is an uncomfortable role within the company.

Of course, your bosses meddling won't suddenly stop if you are promoted, but at least you'll have authority over your work area, and a formal structure for managing the team, that can be very useful for filtering out arbitrary requests from above.

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How do I tactfully mitigate the effect of my manager's cognitive biases?

You continue to do your work as you have been doing for the past three years. In your discussions with your manager you continue to provide the objective evidence of your team members abilities, improvements, deficiencies,....etc.

I would try to document all of your feedback as much as much as possible. If you are verbally communicating this feedback to your manager, I would send a follow up email with a summary of what was discussed. This way, any irrational decisions on the part of your manager will be clearly documented and a neutral third party should be able to determine what the best decision is with regards to advancement.

I don't think a direct and honest conversation about it would be received well, but I also don't want to do nothing about it.

Even if you were your manager's psychologist, you still could not do anything about it. And since you are not their psychologist, you are in no position to have a conversation about your diagnosis of them, at least not in a way that will improve your situation.

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