When we see a 360-degree feedback report with really low scores on most of the items it usually isn’t because the person is truly a terrible leader with no redeeming qualities. Instead, typically one leadership derailer (e.g., micromanaging or volatility) taints the perspective of others so much so that the person seems to do nothing right. We call this the “horn effect,” as the report depicts the person almost as having a pair of horns on his head—like a devil.
We also find the opposite to occur for leaders with noticeably high scores throughout their report. These leaders’ ability to achieve, combined with their great people skills, makes them appear like they are adorned with a halo (think of an angel).
Both the halo and the horn effect are cognitive biases that influence our perceptions of others based on our overall or first impression of them. We tend to freely grant other good or bad attributes to a person based on this overall impression even if we don’t know them very well.
Psychologist Edward Thorndike first used the term “halo effect” in his 1920 article “The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.” In one of his experiments, he asked commanding officers to evaluate their soldiers on various criteria including physical, intellectual, leadership, and personal characteristics. He found that the correlations were too high and too even across all of the criteria and determined that one of the soldier’s characteristics was influencing the commanding officer’s opinion of the rest. This influence occurred both positively and negatively, depending on the soldier evaluated.
So, how do recover if you think you suffer from the horn effect? Our advice to leaders is to address the main behavior problem head-on. Determine which triggers tend to cause the bad behavior and make a plan to act differently. Then, inform others that you recognize the problem and the effect it has on others—and commit to do better. Simply acknowledging the problem goes a long way to change perceptions because people will isolate that one bad attribute and begin to see the other good ones.