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Bias in Determining Leadership Potential

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

The act of accurately determining the potential in others is a challenging task, to say the least. Unfortunately, it is complicated by our own biases as we engaged with people in the workplace. A complicating factor, as illustrated by a study of more than 50 CEOs I recently completed, is that in many cases, potential is being determined by observation. Intuition and opinion are not strong strategies for determining leadership potential. If they were, we wouldn’t get it so wrong so often, and we wouldn’t be facing a leadership crisis currently. If these strategies were strong, we would not be faced with the tremendous amount of underrepresentation of women and people of color at the senior levels.

Intuition and opinion are not strong strategies for determining leadership potential.

Unless trained as a behaviorist, pure observation is a weak approach to determining leadership potential. Add on the fact that research shows there is a tremendous variation to the criteria being used to determine leadership potential and very limited use of assessments. While this work is a combination of art and science, not relying on more objective tools makes it more art. It is difficult for assessors to realize whether they are operating under biases, and that realization may be inherent to successfully determining leadership potential. It is a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse…we have bias, and we are the determinants of whether we have bias. It’s natural…we are human after all, but that means we have work to do. One study indicated that when HR determined its high potential processes and outcomes to be bias-free, one-third of the study’s respondents disagreed. Biases are a big component exemplifying the lack of sophistication existing in this process. The trick is to understand the types of biases that we may lean towards and to have strategies to mitigate them.

Examples of Bias

Biases can occur in many ways in the process of determining leadership potential. Some examples are the obvious ones of race and gender. Others range from bias against creative people to be strong leaders to bias against people who don’t work full-time. A common and problematic bias is physical bias. Those who are ill, overweight, younger, older, shorter, and less attractive face more bias. Take height, for example. Research conducted by Mark Effron shows that taller people earn an extra 1-2% more income for every inch they stand above average. Isn’t that crazy! More so - more attractive people make more money than less attractive people because the former are viewed as being more intelligent, regardless of any evidence supporting that supposition (Korenman, Wetzler, Carroll, & Velilla, 2019). Let’s examine two common examples of bias.

Gender Bias

There is a vast amount of research that supports the assertion that gender bias is prevalent.Women are significantly underrepresented in senior roles compared to men in business…just look at most boards or management teams. This exists in spite of the fact that more women have bachelor’s degrees, master's degrees, and PhDs (Valerio, 2018). Women hold less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEO roles. This bias occurs despite the data indicating that companies run by women often have better ROA, ROE, and sales (Gipson, Pfaff, Mendelsohn, Catenacci, & Burke, 2017). Women typically receive higher performance reviews yet lower pay increases (Effron, 2018). Women score higher than men on assessments in all dimensions of leadership, except for vision and strategy (Player, Randsley de Moura, Leite, Abrams & Tresh, 2019). Typically, however, women are evaluated based on performance, while men are considered to have strong leadership potential by only considering that potential (Rao, 2019). The conditions that exist when women are placed in senior roles are typically crises, the likelihood of failure, or turnaround situations (Gipson, Pfaff, Mendelsohn, Catenacci, & Burke, 2017).

Women hold less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEO roles (5).

Companies hire for “agentic” or male-type behaviors, and yet, when women are evaluated on these behaviors, they are criticized for having them even if they are successful in a leadership role. “Agentic” characteristics include confidence and assertiveness. The problem is when women demonstrate behaviors that would be considered managerial quality in a man, some people in organizations reject them because they are violating the behavioral expectations for their gender and even violating female gender norms. This problem is especially real for women of color. With that said, research by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that $12 trillion could be added to the world economy by 2025 with more women in leadership.

Biases Regarding Performance

A complicator in using performance as an indicator to determine leadership potential is that there is an inherent bias in the process of assessing performance.The familiarity of bosses with employees, especially those who deliver reliable results, encourages bosses to think more leniently about the guidelines regarding leadership potential. Also, the longer a person is in a specific role, the lower the expectations will be, according to Densten (2016). The determination of leadership potential is a wholly different construct than that for assessing performance. This issue is complicated by manager ratings, which are subjective, biased, and full of political considerations. The biggest concern with this bias is that performance is not a predictor of potential unless the roles are the same.

What Can be Done?

It is essential that a robust approach to determining leadership potential be used to assess, with minimal bias, the likelihood of one to be a good leader in the future. Here are some things that can be done:

  1. Identify proven predictors of leadership potential are factors that can be found in the Leadership Blueprint, including factors such as intelligence, personality, motivation, learning agility (Church & Alan, 2014);

  2. Utilize assessment to drive a higher level of objectivity to the data pile, especially if the assessments have a normative comparison;

  3. have multiple people be part of the process to mitigate the likelihood of bias with third party influence;

  4. and lastly, doing some deep work on your own biases is a powerful way to increase your success rate to making bets on talent.

We have a leadership crisis, and our biases are contributing to it. Learn more about our work around determining leadership potential.


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