Each of us has something we feel particularly good at, whether it's writing, small talk or analytic skills. Chances are that what we feel we're good at has become an important part of our self-esteem and it affects our behaviour in ways that we're rarely aware of. That also means that, for a majority of people, mood is affected by comparison to others.

Social comparison bias emerges from social comparison and depends on where we derive our self-esteem on. Broadly, social comparison bias can be defined as the dislike and feeling of competitiveness (conscious or unconscious) of others because they are perceived in some way physically or mentally better than ourselves.

Social comparison bias happens in everyday settings, but I want to draw your attention to its application in a business environment. More specifically, social comparison bias can often influence the hiring decision making process.

Social comparison bias and hiring decisions

A series of studies conducted by University of Michigan professor Stephen Garcia and his colleagues revealed that, when it comes to making hiring decisions, people tend to favour candidates that don't compete with their own particular strengths.

Garcia and his colleagues hypothesized that people who have a particularly high standing on one dimension (let's say decision power ) will likely protect their standing by preventing others (who have the potential to surpass them on the same dimension) to enter their comparison context.

In one study, Garcia and his colleagues looked to prove the link between people's tendency to recommend those who do not surpass themselves on the relevant dimension to the concern of protecting one's self-esteem.

Here's how the study went: participants were randomly assigned to make one of two recommendations between potential hires. They were then asked to read the following:

"Imagine you are working for a company that is making an offer to a new recruit with similar experience and qualifications for a position similar to your own. Imagine further that the company has asked you for your recommendation on the degree of salary versus decision making power to offer the new recruit. If you were among the (highest paid but average in decision-making power/highest in decision-making power but average paid), what would you recommend for the new recruit?"

Participants indicated their preference on a continuous scale where 1 was "More decision power than mine" and 7 was "More salary than mine."

To answer the question of whether the responses are related to self esteem, the participants were asked again:

"Imagine you are working for a company that has compensated you in terms of salary and decision-making power. If you were among the (highest paid but average in decision making power/highest in decision-making power but average paid), which do you think would be more important to your self-esteem?"

The participants were again asked to rate this answer on a continuous scale.

The results are probably not surprising by now. Participants were more inclined to recommend that the new recruit be compensated on the dimension on which he/she had average standing. For example, participants who were high in salary but average in decision power recommended significantly more decision-making power for the new recruit. They also believed that salary would be more important to their self-esteem.

Although the study doesn't necessarily show causation, it does show a strong relationship between self-esteem and bias in collaboration.

Where the strength of a team manager is

I've mentioned before the words that are written on Andrew Carnegie's tombstone.

”Here lies a man who knew how to enlist the service of better men than himself.”

This is also where the strength of a good manager lies. Carnegie was not afraid to hire people that knew more than him, even in areas that were his expertise. To build a team that will reach results, some people on the team will inevitably need to be better than the manager on some dimension. This in no way threatens the position of the manager; on the contrary, it builds her reputation as a manager that drives results.

The results of Garcia's study suggest that decisions influenced by the social comparison bias are more likely to favour either an individual or a sub-group of individuals, but can hurt the organization at large if the wrong people are recommended and hired. Becoming aware of the social comparison bias can enable you to make better hiring choices for your business.

Think you don't suffer from the social comparison bias?

We've talked before about cognitive biases that affect our work. One of these biases is 'bias blind spot'. It basically makes us believe that biases apply to others, but not to us. That is probably because when we asses ourselves for bias, we look inward, through our own thoughts and feelings. However, biases operate unconsciously. Introspection isn't a reliable indicative of a bias. Which is why you might be able to see the social comparison bias in others, but not in yourself.


Have you ever experienced social comparison bias at work? Join the conversation below!