Lessons from the Olympics: A crash course on merit!

Wendy Lundgaard
Saturday, February 24, 2018
Lessons from the Olympics

It wouldn’t be an Olympics without controversial decisions, and the Winter Olympics is no exception. What can we learn from the Men’s Aerial Freestyle? Quite a bit it would seem!

Years of preparation, sacrifice and the expectations of nations are on the line. A panel of judges can view the same individual’s performance and yet arrive at different scores. Points awarded for Aussie David Morris’s near flawless execution fell short of China’s Jia Zongyang’s faltering finish. I am certain there were more than a few who felt confused if not angry at the result: Was Morris robbed?

It's complicated!

Rationally we know assessing individual merit in sport, especially in a freestyle event, has its challenges not unlike assessing talent in hiring and promotion. This was not a ‘time trial’ where everyone can be judged on irrefutable facts. Instead scoring must accommodate creativity, degree of difficulty, height and landing not to mention the contentious aspect of ‘control’ – a raft of criteria and rules. I may also add at this point, there are those who claim at least one other competitor executed the same manoeuvre as Morris yet resulting in a much higher score. This just adds to spectator frustration.

In the workplace we use clear selection criteria, conduct structured interviews and comprehensive reference checks etc yet assessment of talent remains more an ‘art’ rather than a science. As humans we are imperfect and inconsistent, particularly when making decision under time pressures. We are susceptible to a range of biases and prejudices, not all of them negative as those who have benefited from being favoured would attest. Our biases and prejudices operate at an unconscious level (that is we don’t know we have them) playing out in the form of assumptions, gut-feel instincts and stereotyping (be it gender, age, race etc). And when we don’t know we have them, we can’t mitigate their impact.

Bias awareness programs help surface rarely discussed human factors which influence our decisions, providing a new language to talk about perceptions, assumptions and realities - and hold each other accountable.

Neuroscience research has enhanced understanding of how the brain and mind operates and what we are good at as well as the things that challenge us as humans. It appears we are really, really good at setting up a logical scoring or merit-based system. However, our shortcomings surface in the more complex aspect of synthesising relevant data: the information we choose to take in and the value we attach to it before applying the data to a scoring system. We are also easily distracted.

The core problem is that people are easily distracted by things that might be only marginally relevant, and they use information inconsistently (check it out here Harvard Business Review, May 2014.)

Is it possible that Morris’s sure-footed landing could have distracted us from the bigger picture prowess exhibited by Zongyang across his entire run? Our gut instinct gives us one message and the score card says something different. This disconnect requires a review of our instinctive response. Indeed, we tend to back our instincts when we should be quite wary of decisions we make using this approach. Harvard studies show that when assessing merit in hiring and promotion candidates, algorithms could do the job with 25% greater accuracy. Does this herald a new era in Artificial Intelligence? In sport we are supplementing the umpire/adjudicator decisions with decision review systems and other technology supports. It is no longer enough to rely on the human assessment. The future is here, at least in some sports!  What review mechanisms do we currently use at work when assessing merit? In my 30+ years in human resource practice I have found this aspect rarely undertaken by panels.  Judgements are rarely unpacked or questioned, yet can be riddled with distortion, assumption and misjudgement and with devastating consequences for people and their careers. 

Firstly, we should understand how the brain works

The more we understand how our brains and minds work the more we discover the role cognitive and personal biases play in decisions we make.  At a cognitive level we now know that our brain is wired in a way that frequently offers false confidence, that is that we (falsely) believe we have all the information we need to make an informed, balanced and correct decision. This would be wonderful, however it’s just not reality. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains the human brain having a dual operating system for thinking (and decision making): a fast mode and a slow one. Fast thinking enables us to make quick decisions, once essential for survival (i.e. the flight or fight response) without realising the downside of insufficient data to make valid, robust decisions.  Kahneman’s research shows we rarely engage the slow thinking part of our brain that would improve our decision making. This is due to two reasons: a) we don’t feel we need to, and b) it takes up a lot of fuel (energy) to put in this effort. In work and in sport we have good reason to be cautious about the application of merit given the fast pace of work and the speed by which we make our decisions. Cognitive biases frequently hijack sound decision making.

In addition to what we miss when our brain is functioning at high speed,  we also have personal biases which shape the type of information we take in, how we weight this information and then how we interpret it. This helps us explain why multiple judges can watch the same routine yet score differently. A mitigation strategy at the Olympics is built into the scoring system: discard the highest and lowest scores, then average out the remaining scores. What system do you use for managing bias in people-based decisions at work?  Some use 'blind' recruitment which can remove biases about the gender, school/university, hobbies (which often identify gender) and generally try to make our merit assessment focused on the important selection criteria we have prepared earlier.  This intervention can reduce distraction on irrelevant aspects of the resume at this early stage. I have seen a line manager eliminate a candidate because of their address! Blind resume's is a great start, however let's recognise that there is still scope for unleashing our biases once a person presents for interview.  How do we ensure we assess merit fairly, manage our biases and eliminate distraction on irrelevant data?    

Four lessons from the Olympics in assessing merit fairly:

  • Check for any preconceived ideas or biases we have about the individuals (e.g. remind ourselves that irrespective of world ranking going into this event, everyone starts with a clean slate. Separate scoring of candidates for shortlisting from interview processes - better still use different people/panels for each process)
  • Be clear on the weighting of each element to be assessed and any rules 
  • Watch for short cuts in our own decision making – do we have all the evidence needed to substantiate each scoring component, check for any 'benefit of the doubt' shortcuts made during scoring
  • Above all, remind ourselves to be fair and apply criteria in a consistent manner to all.

The application of merit is a complex area, and these are just a few tips that we can apply in the workplace setting. Being alert to the role biases play in influencing decisions goes some way to making our hiring and promotion processes fairer for all and deliver on identifying top talent. Contact me today to discuss how we may assist your organisation tackle this challenge. Contact us at

Our next article will delve more deeply into the role of personal biases and how these distort fairness and merit. We will reconnect with new graduates Helen and Hugh as they navigate the world of work today. If you missed our previous article on the Gender Pay Gap click here.

Wendy LundgaardWendy Lundgaard provides leadership education and workplace training on challenging unconscious bias, inclusive leadership and respectful workplace behaviour. Wendy established her consulting practice in 2006 to assist organisations reap the benefits of high performance through a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace.

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