What Is the Halo Effect in Project Management Teams? 2024

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Key Takeaways: The Halo Effect

  • Although it was proposed in 1907, Edward Thorndike was the first to present evidence that it’s a specific cognitive bias and coined the term “halo effect” in the 1920s.
  • The halo effect impacts all aspects of life, including our professional working environments. 
  • The halo effect can have a positive or negative impact on professional outcomes; however, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. 

Facts & Expert Analysis About the Halo Effect 

  • Building strong environments: Creating an open and supportive environment encourages people to be more forthcoming about their abilities, or lack thereof, which helps avoid the halo effect. 
  • Promoting diversity: Promoting diversity in the workplace is a good way to ensure that others don’t succumb to the halo effect.
  • It’s not all bad: Despite the negativity surrounding the halo effect, it can also boost morale and help your team do the best work possible. 

The halo effect in project management doesn’t mean you have a team full of angels, nor does it mean you’re guaranteed the best project management career. Instead, the halo effect is an overly favorable evaluation of a team’s or person’s abilities. This may sound great, but it can often lead to disappointing outcomes.

According to the Project Management Institute, the halo effect “is the basic human tendency to make inferences based on general impressions.” This means that we demonstrate a cognitive bias based on single traits rather than looking at the bigger picture. This leads to the assumption that a project manager will deliver project success because of a single trait or factor. 

In this article, we’re going to look at the core scenarios where the halo effect is in full force. We’ll explain how it can impact project management, and go over how you can combat the halo effect to ensure project success and foster a healthy working environment. 

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What Is the Halo Effect Bias in Project Management, Marketing, Business & Communication?

In 1920, leading psychologist Edward Thorndike coined the term “halo effect” in his paper “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.” The halo effect applies to all forms of life, and is essentially a cognitive bias many of us have towards certain people and situations.

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In the business world, the halo effect could mean making the assumption that a tall male is destined for success due to his physical attributes. It’s an unconscious judgment of a person’s character based on what we see. Rather than analyzing the whole personality, we make a generalized opinion based on a single trait.

In project management, one team member may join from a small company, and another may arrive from a highly regarded, global organization. This doesn’t guarantee that one will be better at a given role than another. However, the halo effect could lead a team to favor the team member that joined from the more reputable company. 

What Causes the Halo Effect?

Now that we know what the halo effect is, we need to take a closer look at what causes it. When we look at cultural norms in society, we recognize that more attractive people exist higher up the social ranking and that more intelligent people experience more professional success.

When we see people who match our preconceived notions, our brain naturally makes assumptions and develops an overall impression of a person without considering other parts of their personality. 

The positive side to this is that it helps save brain power and can lead to fast decision-making and faster, more valuable outcomes in project management. The obvious downsides are that it can lead to making the wrong decisions and going down the wrong direction. This can lead to re-planning, which inevitably leads to decreased productivity.

Halo Effect Examples

Below, we’ll cover some common examples of the halo effect. You’ll likely recognize these biases within yourself but may not be actively aware of them.

Social Background

A person’s socioeconomic status has a significant impact on how other people perceive them. People have a more positive perception of someone they consider to be middle to upper class. On the other hand, a person from a working or lower-class background will likely be judged more negatively, even if they’re as capable as those from higher-class categories. 

Outstanding Personality Trait

If a person is funny or supportive or has any other outstanding personality traits, that one trait influences our overall opinion of the person. In reality, a person may be lacking when it comes to other areas of their personality and performance. However, this is difficult to notice right away due to how that person influences your judgment based on that single strong trait. 

Success in Other Roles

If a person demonstrates exceptional performance in one role, we may believe they will mirror the same success in another role. For example, a person may have very good organizational skills, leading you to believe they will do well in a role requiring high-level analytical skills. You may be right, but that bias may also result in not hiring a more qualified candidate. 

Educational Background

A person’s educational background highly impacts how others perceive them. Individuals who attended private schools will likely be favored over those who attended public schools, as will those who attended more prestigious universities. It’s no coincidence that most of the prime ministers in the U.K. went to Eton, one of the country’s most reputable private schools. 

Employee Recommendations

We all trust certain people in our respective industries. Therefore, when a person you trust recommends someone to work at your company, it’s normal to form a bias of how well that individual will perform. This can lead us to over-evaluate what that person’s performance will be like once they start working on a project.

How Does the Halo Effect Affect a Project Team?

The halo effect can impact a project team in both positive and negative ways. Naturally, having an overall positive perception of a person or team will boost confidence. Having a high level of confidence spurs people on to perform at the highest standard and deliver high-quality work on time and without delay, which is perfect for project success.

Unfortunately, the negative effects can crush project success. The halo effect can result in hiring the wrong person, giving a team unreasonable targets or over-promising to external stakeholders based on how talented you believe your resources are. It can also lead to being overly disappointed in a person due to unrealistic expectations.

How to Avoid Halo Effect Bias in Project Management

Being aware of the halo effect, it’s important to take concrete steps to ensure level-headed decisions are being made, as the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Below are some best practices to help prevent the impact of the halo effect from taking over your otherwise sound judgment. 

  • Gather diverse perspectives: Before hiring someone or assigning work, gather perspectives from others so you have a more balanced view of a person’s or team’s ability to deliver on a specific goal. 
  • Practice self-awareness: Now that you’ve seen examples of the halo effect, cultivate self-awareness so you can spot when the halo effect starts to take over. 
  • Have patience and understanding: If a team or team member doesn’t deliver the way you thought they would, have the patience to understand that it may not be their fault. In fact, their work may still be to a high standard, even if it’s not the standard you manifested in your mind.
  • Create a safe environment: If you’re a project manager, it’s important to create an open, nonjudgmental environment for good communication. This way, people will feel more comfortable approaching you if you’re asking them to bite off more than they can chew. 
  • Promote diversity: Though social and professional backgrounds may sway our judgments, people from all backgrounds are capable of success. Promote diversity in your workplace to ensure cognitive bias doesn’t drive your approach to work and projects.

What’s the Horn Effect? Reverse Halo Effect Explained

The horn effect is the complete opposite of the halo effect. It’s the phenomenon of developing a negative opinion about a person based on limited factors. Former prisoners are victims of this – it is very difficult for them to reintegrate into society after a conviction.

In project management, companies may be reluctant to give a person another chance if a previous project didn’t go well. The assumption that they will fail to deliver again may dominate, even if they have the technical expertise to succeed.

Final Thoughts

By now, you should have a clear view of what the halo effect is and how it impacts you and the project you’re running. Remember, self-awareness is key to ensuring the halo effect doesn’t take a strong hold of your decision-making and your overall project strategy. 

Speaking of project strategy and planning, we recommend taking a look at our guide on how to make a project quality plan so you can develop the best foundation for future projects. In addition, check out our selection of the best project management software to help keep projects organized.

Did you find this article useful? Would you like a detailed overview of the horn effect? How do you handle cognitive bias in the workplace? Let us know in the comments. Thanks for reading. 

FAQ: The Halo Effect

  • The halo effect is the phenomenon of developing an overly positive opinion of a person based on a single trait, without analyzing the broader spectrum of their personality.

  • People tend to have more positive opinions and higher expectations of individuals from a higher socioeconomic status. This is an example of the halo effect.

  • The best way to avoid the halo effect is by not rushing into decisions, gaining diverse perspectives before hiring someone and having enough self-awareness to know when you’re making snap judgments.

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