Cognitive Bias Leadership

The Halo Effect kills your team’s engagement

the halo effect

It starts early, at school, in fact. A student, who scored the best grade on an assignment, is the one who instantly becomes a “teacher’s pet”. And there are couple of benefits of that position. 

If such a student is 5 minutes late to class, it’s not a big deal. A teacher will find it regular, something that can happen occasionally. What if that were a student who didn’t pass an assignment? A teacher would probably be blaming him for being careless in front of the whole class. 

What about asking questions during a class? If an A student isn’t able to answer a teacher’s question, that’s perfectly fine. There is still something to be learned. But again, average students won’t be treated the same way.

And here it is – the halo effect. This term was first used by Edward Thorndike in 1920 [1]. So much time has passed, but we are still not a whole lot better at harnessing that bias than we were a hundred years ago. But let’s discuss in detail how exactly it affects our lives.

What is the halo effect

The halo effect (sometimes called the halo error) is a tendency to have a positive impression of a person in one area that also positively affects other areas. A simplified example of the halo effect is when you judge a person as positive because he or she is smiling in a photo or is simply attractive. 

Jeremy L. Gibson and Jonathan Gore conducted a study [2] to investigate how the attractiveness of a man can affect his other personal attributes. Two male faces (attractive and unattractive) with similar features were partnered with two scenarios of positive norm violation (low intensity and high intensity). Then, 178 female college students were given a scenario sheet and a reaction form to match a situation to its perception. The result showed more favorable ratings for the attractive male face.

“The more attractive man in this condition was seen as bearing more positive personality characteristics than the less attractive man performing the same behavior.”

There were many other research studies that proved we tend to view someone who is attractive as successful and popular. But why is that actually bad? Because that cognitive bias affects the way we treat people at work, at school and in everyday life [3]. Let me give you a few different workplace examples that can happen because of the halo effect.

Team leader’s inability to see the problem

One of the most dangerous situations is a manager or a leader who cannot see the whole picture clearly. It can happen at a team level but also much higher, at an executive level. The halo effect can lead to unfair differences in how we treat people, especially when it comes to subordinates. A team leader, who is affected by that cognitive bias, can form an overall positive opinion about an employee based on his behavior during a single situation. 

Let’s imagine that a team includes Adam, an experienced and highly skilled software engineer. Right after he joined the team, Adam solved a severe problem, thanks to which a team leader finds him a good employee, someone he likes to work with. But team members don’t share that opinion. They find Adam too aggressive and tyrannical. Even though they informed their team leader of those feelings, he doesn’t seem to notice a problem. He is unable to see Adam’s negative features due to the positive evaluation of his great engineering skills.

There is a risk that Adam will be perceived as a great employee based on prior performance. Team leaders should be aware of that effect and its consequences. Otherwise, they can overlook problems which may be destroying their teams from the inside out. 

Bringing people down

When some employees are always viewed in a more positive light, there is a chance that others will be automatically assessed less positively even when their actions are the same. Meaning that a team leader will be treating people unfairly. As a result, it can amplify the differences between team members in terms of their skills and development. 

Those who are treated less favorably won’t be rewarded with the same benefits, projects, assignments, and other perks. The worst thing is that they won’t be able to develop their skills and won’t have the chance to become valuable employees. Team leaders affected by the halo effect will be more likely to offer challenging and interesting opportunities to their favorite employees. And now we’ve got a vicious circle. 

the halo effect and success
The Halo Effect affects success

It’s not only a leader or manager’s problem. It also relates to team members which distribute tasks within a team. The best members get the most risky and challenging tasks, those who are worse, get what’s left. Typically, boring and mundane chores.

People, who have managed to create a positive first impression, are later on offered opportunities, which let them develop their skills, gain recognition, and trust. As opposed to those who were initially judged negatively. Even though they can also have great skills, they can be overlooked due to the halo effect. It’s not like we’ve got evil intentions or hate other people. It’s caused by the fallacy of the way we perceive others. 

Lack of recognition

It can be tempting for biased leaders to only praise their favorite employees and leave those less popular without any recognition. The halo effect is one of the most common biases affecting performance appraisals and reviews. Supervisors may rate their subordinates based on a single quality rather than overall performance and actual contribution to a team and project. 

As you can imagine, that can lead to resentment and lower motivation among the less complimented team members. Their positive attitude and enthusiasm may decrease due to the lack of appreciation. Soon, they will realize that it’s not worth giving their best. They will become unengaged and demotivated. And that will affect the performance of the whole team.

Biased promotions

The same goes for promotions, which often result from positive performance reviews. Promotions awarded because of the halo effect can be precarious not only for the team but also the whole company. It’s because promotions are rather long-lasting. It’s easy to promote someone and offer a more responsible position, but it’s much harder to degrade that person later on in case there are some problems. 

That’s why managers and leaders should be aware of the halo effect. In the end, they are the ones who decide about promotions and their point of view shouldn’t be biased. They should be capable of making decisions based on facts. Someone who has great technical skills can have poor leadership skills. Such aspects shouldn’t be overlooked while giving promotions, especially when it comes to leadership positions.


Be aware of the halo effect and how it can affect the way you perceive others. Maybe you already have someone in mind who you perceive as better than they actually are? 

If so, I wouldn’t assume that it’s something negative right away. But it’s definitely a good idea to ask yourself what assumptions you made about that person and what you believe is actually accurate. Because you might find out you’ve missed something important due to that cognitive bias.


[1] Thorndike, E.L. (1920). A constant error in psychological ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25–29.

[2] Gibson, Jeremy & Gore, Jonathan. (2016). Is He a Hero or a Weirdo? How Norm Violations Influence the Halo Effect. Gender Issues. 33. 10.1007/s12147-016-9173-6.

[3] Wang, Angel. (2009). Physical Attractiveness and its Effects on Social Treatment and Inequality. SSRN Electronic Journal. 10.2139/ssrn.1518099.