Despite this, one simple mistake is made time and time again. It occurs across the organisational spectrum – from established multinationals to new start-ups – and can have serious consequences on the businesses that make it, and even for wider society.
So what is this fundamental error, why is it so common, and how can you avoid it?
The “similar-to-me” effect
In a nutshell, the problem is the ‘similar-to-me' effect – where leaders recruit and promote people like themselves.
This issue is gaining quite a lot of attention at the moment, thanks to the drive to get more women on to corporate boards. It’s actually much broader than this, however, and can undermine your business even when your senior team looks quite diverse on the surface.
Why is it so common?
How does this happen?
Quite simply, everyone has a natural tendency to like people who share their interests, values, experiences and social background.
Indeed the scientific evidence shows that interviewers often favour job applicants who look like they do.
Of course, there are also occasions when ‘opposites attract', or when other factors carry more weight.
Despite these instances, it's by no means an exaggeration to say you're always at risk of gravitating towards the person who is most like you in one way or another when choosing someone to join your leadership team.
This is not because you’re any worse at making these decisions than the next person.
The phenomenon is often explained from an evolutionary perspective. Humans instinctively use a small number of obvious clues to make quick judgements about other people on a constant basis.
Is this person a friend or an enemy?
Can I trust him or her not to harm me or my family?
Do we have common values and objectives?
And so on.
Even today, these can occasionally be life and death decisions – which is why we’re naturally programmed to rely so heavily on our intuition the first time we meet someone.
So what’s the problem?
On this basis, it’s easy to see why ‘similar-to-me' might be a useful rule of thumb to start with.
The problem comes if you rely on these snap judgements, even when you have plenty of opportunities to find out more and make a fully informed decision.
As we all know, first impressions may provide some important and enduring insights, but the reality is always much more complex.
Similarly, with someone you’ve gotten to know over time, it’s natural to place too much emphasis on how much you have in common, and the way you see things ‘eye to eye'. This may make for a comfortable and long-lasting relationship, but it’s simply not enough to go on when choosing the members of your senior team.
At the very least, it could expose you to the dangers of ‘group think', putting your business at risk by discouraging challenge, limiting innovation and creating blind spots.
Once you understand these risks, it’s relatively straightforward to monitor any biases based on obvious physical characteristics or social background – although that doesn’t mean it’s easy to iron them out!
When it comes to core values, interests and objectives, it’s easier to see a case for seeking a good match between you and the rest of your leadership team.
This can work as long as you’re clear and explicit about focusing on aspects that are important and relevant to the business. You would still need to be very careful about valuing differences in other areas, and managing the risks of ‘group think'.
More insidious, are biases – both immediate and longer-term – that relate to personality and leadership style. These can be harder to spot, and are often masked by the reasonable desire to make sure someone is a ‘good fit' with the team.
Of course, you need the right person for the role and the team, but it won’t get you far if you focus too much on how well you ‘click' with them, or how much like you they are when they’re annoying you!
It’s this question of leaders’ personality and style that I’m most interested in. You can go a long way towards strengthening your team by choosing people with a diverse range of skills, backgrounds, genders, ethnicities and experiences.
But, even then, a personality profiling exercise may reveal strong similarities across the group – as my work with leadership teams has shown.
This can cause real problems, especially when it comes to over-using character strengths (something I’ll be writing more about in future).
For example, if a leadership group all have very high levels of self-confidence, they may underestimate difficulties and overlook suggestions put forward by others – causing stress for those who report to them, and creating performance risks for the organisation.
If they all have very high levels of personal energy, drive and need for change, they may well set an unsustainable pace for the business and those who work in it.
What you can do about it?
There’s no doubt that diversity strengthens a leadership team – the evidence on this is conclusive. So, here are a few tips to help you achieve this in your situation:
- Make sure you ‘get' this argument – trust me, this is not a mistake you can afford to make. If you’re unsure or unconvinced, take the time to check it out – there’s plenty of good evidence to draw on from business websites, and from a critical analysis of your own experience!
- Accept that you’re as susceptible as the next person to the ‘similar-to-me' effect, and think about what form this takes in your own decision-making. When are you most at risk of making this kind of mistake, and what are the consequences?
- Practise making your own assumptions more explicit, and be prepared to challenge them. It can feel scary or wrong to let go of your ‘gut feel', and there will be times when this will be unnecessary, but you won’t know what’s best unless you’re open to being wrong, and skilled in making evidence-based decisions.
- Treat the process of assessment and selection as a technical skill – there’s a mine of information around on what techniques do and don’t work, and you can learn how to use the best techniques in a skilled way to make the best choices and decisions.
- Once you’ve achieved a good level of diversity, you and your team will need to manage the differences of perspective, opinion and style that this brings.
- Only in this way will you experience the known benefits, which include improved innovation, problem-solving, productivity, employee engagement and business performance.