In 2011 Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioral psychologist at Princeton, wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow. This rich and rather dense book details the bias that runs rampant in human decision-making and highlights the illusion of objectivity that pervades our thinking. A summary of the many years of research he and other psychologists conducted over the last 30-40 years, Thinking, Fast and Slow provides a conceptual framework for exploring the prejudices that inflict any group’s collective judgment.
And nowhere is this flawed decision-making more evident than in the work of independent school search committees tasked with selecting a new head of school. In fact, the bias that inflicts many search committees is so palpable that Kahneman’s book should be required reading for all members of a newly formed search committee.
Let’s look at some examples.
The priming bias is well-known in the hiring process. It is sometimes referred to as the “deficit hiring bias.” This particular irrational thinking involves identifying the attributes of the present head of school and assigning them unwarranted value in the selection of the next head. So if a head is perceived as having weak relationships with students, the search committee decides that it is imperative that the next head be someone who will develop great relationships with students, and indeed, it may be helpful for the next head to have this attribute. But too often, search committees unthinkingly and unwisely elevate the importance of this attribute in their selection process. In these situations, the search committee’s perception of the current head primes the unconscious value placed on student relationships.
The “halo bias” is yet another example of the irrational thinking that goes into selecting a head. Perhaps a candidate comes from a highly regarded, prestigious school that search committee members admire tremendously. The perception of the prestigious school becomes a powerful proxy for all the candidate’s attributes leading to thinking that goes something like this: 1) this candidate comes from a prestigious school; 2) we wish our school were more like the candidate’s school; 3) we should hire this candidate. Many of us “rational” folk might scoff at the simplicity of this thinking, but it is the kind of thinking that sells cars, soft drinks, and a myriad of other advertised consumer goods. Most of us are susceptible to the power of brand and it’s important that we recognize this susceptibility.
And finally, there is what I call “the beauty contest bias” or as Kahneman refers to it – the “substitution bias.” Absent the hard work, discipline and rigor of amassing evidence that demonstrates that a candidate has the attributes that the search committee identified as critical for the next head to possess, the search committee instead asks itself the easy question: “Do we like this candidate?” The fact that the committee consists of representatives from multiple constituencies and has hired a consultant to lead it through the process provides the false comfort and illusion that objectivity rules the day. This is often not the case. A candidate may “knock it out of the park,” in an interview by demonstrating that she really “gets” the school. In essence, the candidate is validating the committee members’ love of the school. Perhaps her enthusiasm for the school and her desire to “land” the job draw committee members to her. Post-interview, the committee looks for evidence to support its initial emotional connection with the candidate. It fails to go back to the attributes of the ideal leader and ask the question, “What evidence in writings, interviews, and recommendations demonstrates that the candidate has the requisite skills, experience, personality, and knowledge to be the leader the school needs going forward?” To answer that question requires hard work and, as Kahneman so convincingly reveals, we humans would rather go with the easy, intuitive answer than the answer that is supported by solid evidence.
Is there any wonder that so many independent schools throughout the country are facing enrollment problems? The search committees for these schools act as if they would rather “fall in love” than win. If the quality of leadership is critical to the future success of independent schools, then search committees must be more rigorous and disciplined in the way they approach their work. It also might help to have consultants that continually drive the committee back to the attributes of the ideal candidate delineated in the position statement. Although search committees cannot completely eliminate bias in their selections, they can somewhat neutralize the ill effects of prejudice by hiring consultants who know that there is a difference between winning the job and doing the job.