Last week’s eclipse (and all its brilliant radiance) nudged my memory to an often overlooked and more prevalent phenomena. The halo effect, emitting its own type of radiance, is when you perceive one trait as being positive and therefore associate other related traits as also being positive. It can also work in reverse, associating a negative trait in a similar way. This is called the reverse halo effect, or the Devil effect (although I think the horn effect would be more metaphorically appropriate).

How many times have you picked up a book because the cover artwork was interesting? Ever overlooked how awful a server was at a restaurant because they were attractive? Perhaps you’ve hired or promoted someone because they were good in one area, but it turns out they’re pretty bad in numerous others? How many times have you done the exact opposite of all these examples? Those are all part of the halo effect and its reverse.

In 2002, Melvin Sorcher and James Brant wrote an article about picking leaders based on more sufficient information. They detail out a more refined process on selecting a better leader, but what about being a better leader?

If you are, or have ever had, an amazing leader, you know sacrifice is part of a successful recipe. As Simon Sinek wrote in Leaders Eat Last, “… the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own.” But if you solve Problem A every time it occurs, you’re not doing anyone any favors. And if one of your team member’s is solving the problem over and over, it’s their problem, but still your problem.

Sometimes the halo effect comes from doing one thing well. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “Oh you need help with that? Go to Bill –  he’s a genius with it.” Then you go to Bill and he seems annoyed, “Why does everyone always come to me with those problems? It isn’t even part of my job!” Sorry Bill, the halo effect causes people to create a general rule out of a single occurrence.

How do you identify and separate the halo effect from your leadership behavior while also helping your team? You have to separate performance from the positive image of whomever, or whatever, you’re considering. Here are four ideas on diminishing these halo and devil effects so you can see what’s influencing your behavior more clearly.

  1. Cross-associate. You have Employee A, who you’re considering for a promotion. Now pick out her opposite, Employee Z (i.e. pick out someone you wish would just stop coming to work). Think about specific actions each one does; not character traits, specific actions, like coming to work late or sending thank you cards. Next, imagine Employee A has the negative traits of Z and vice-versa. How do you feel about Employee A now? How about Employee Z? Look deeper. Are you rationalizing Employee A’s bad actions as one-off or understandable? Are you dismissing Employee Z’s good actions as manipulative or insincere? Be honest with yourself, and see where you’ll see what you were ignoring.
  2. Individuate. Write down the specific attributes you think make up their high-quality nature. Don’t just think of them, write them down; you’ll need to see them. Next to each attribute, write the supporting information. Think of the whole idea as a puzzle. The halo effect causes you to overlook the pieces that are missing or peeling apart. Counter this by considering each puzzle piece by itself. THEN you can build the big picture, once you know that you’ve examined the situation thoroughly.
  3. Teach. There are a lot of gaps you need to fill for your team, but sometimes you’re more of a crutch than a helping hand. Your team sees this glow around you as fixing whatever they can’t do because well, you always do when they ask! It’s critical to ensure that, when supporting your team as a crutch, you likewise invest the time in teaching them, insofar as you are able. If it’s not an area your comfortable teaching, find someone (or an external source) that is. Alternatively, look at resources that can take automate the solution. Make sure you’re giving your team the ability to help themselves in the future, instead of solely rely on you. Spoiler alert: you won’t always be around.
  4. Meet. Similar to the teaching approach, your team members can be a crutch for their peers. As a leader, you hope your team will come to you if they’re burdened by others’ work. For those of you currently in charge of a team, you know that’s just not reality. Use stand up meetings to check in with your team on a regular basis. Your goal is to find the pain points in an informal setting. Ask questions: Who did work outside their area this week? How could we help you with that? What is the biggest time-consumer of your day/week? When do you feel the busiest? Find threads to pull on to dive deeper into root causes. Just because someone has an answer, doesn’t mean it’s the truth or even correct.


These are not exhaustive, but they’ll get you started on the right path. You may find one works better than others and that’s perfectly normal.

Let me know: How do you currently mitigate the halo and devil effect in your leadership style? Where do you think you experience these effects the greatest?

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