A recent article in the Washington Post identifies many roadblocks for Black football coaches getting one of the 32 most-coveted jobs in the NFL: head coach. The Rooney Rule—a National Football League policy requiring teams to interview “at least one external minority candidate” for head coaching and senior football operation jobs—was established in 2003.1 At the time, there were only two Black head coaches in the NFL. In nearly 20 years since, the number of Black head coaches has never been higher than seven, even though more than 50% of NFL players are Black. Why is this the case? While the Washington Post article covers many roadblocks many Black coaches face, I focus here on one key point the article makes:
“. . . the roadblocks faced by Black coaches stem in part from the fact that so many owners don’t know how to identify leaders.”
The inability to identify leaders is not just a problem for NFL owners—many organizations struggle to select effective leaders—but this does provide a poignant example of why so many organizations are so bad at it.
The Job Interview Is the Problem
Like leaders in many other organizations, NFL coaches are selected largely based on an interview with the owner and other executives. NFL owners and executive teams are often white and tend to have affluent backgrounds. Moreover, a typical job interview might last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. Being so short, these interviews offer little opportunity to get to know someone but ample opportunity for the hiring party to decide who they “like.”
This is where the trouble starts. Research shows that one of the most important factors in getting a job offer is being liked by the interviewer. Being liked is even more important than highlighting your achievements, as one field study showed.2,3 Likeability has such a powerful effect on interview outcomes that I regularly give one piece of advice to job candidates who are preparing for interviews: you win the interview if they like you; you make them like you by ingratiating them, not by demonstrating your knowledge, talent, or capability.
And this is where the trouble continues. The research on ingratiation, or what makes someone like you, shows that similarity is one of the primary factors driving liking in initial interactions.4 In fact, one study showed that candidates with similar biographical characteristics to the interviewer were rated higher by the interviewer.5 All other things being equal, we tend to like people who are like us. This is particularly true when we have limited opportunity to get to know people beyond superficial characteristics, such as those experienced during a brief interview.
Returning to the typical NFL coach interview, this is a situation where a Black coaching candidate is trying to appeal to a white, affluent team owner in competition with a white coaching candidate who is likely more similar to the team owner. I think you can see the advantage is in the white candidate’s favor.
Unconscious Bias in Job Interviews
Now I want to be clear here. Bias is not always conscious. In fact, I suspect most team owners are making an earnest effort to hire the candidate who gives their team the best shot at winning. But similarity and liking are powerful and operate subconsciously: “I don’t know why, but I just have a good feeling about this person.” I believe this is the root cause of the hiring bias against Black head coaches in the NFL: owners largely hire the candidate they like the best, regardless of other qualifications, and they are more likely to like someone who shares their background.
Unfortunately, this is a problem for hiring managers everywhere. Evolution tells us that people are biologically wired to like people who are similar to them. The most common method for hiring—the interview—is all about liking. Furthermore, almost everyone thinks they are a good judge of talent, but the reality is that at least 50% of us aren’t.6 In fact, the entire business model for Hogan Assessments is founded on the notion that people are generally poor judges of talent and that personality assessments bring some objectivity to talent identification.
But talent identification is what makes the NFL coaching situation so much more problematic. More than 50% of the NFL players are Black. This suggests no bias against hiring Black players. Why is this the case? The answer is simple. Players aren’t evaluated largely by an interview. Players are judged based on their observable talent, their proven past performance, a huge number of objective metrics (including assessments), and their ability to get results.
Can you imagine what the NFL might look like if teams could decide who to hire based on only job interviews? That is precisely what happens with coaches.
An Equitable Leadership Selection Method
A better way to identify leadership talent exists. High-quality personality assessments—assessments with a proven track record of being accurate, fair, and unbiased against historically excluded candidates—are an obvious solution to the NFL’s biased coaching selection problem.
And they are a solution to your organization’s leadership selection problems too.
This blog post was authored by Chief Science Officer Ryne A. Sherman, PhD.
- Sheinin, D., Lee, M., Giambalvo, E., Galocha, A., & Morse, C. E. (2022, September 21). How the NFL Blocks Black Coaches. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/interactive/2022/nfl-black-head-coaches/
- Higgins, C. A., Judge, T. A., & Ferris, G. R. (2003). Influence Tactics and Work Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24,89–106. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.181
- Higgins, C. A., & Judge, T. A. (2004). The Effect of Applicant Influence Tactics on Recruiter Perceptions of Fit and Hiring Recommendations: A Field Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(4), 622–632. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.89.4.622
- Byrne, D., Baskett, G. D., & Hodges, L. (1971). Behavioral Indicators of Interpersonal Attraction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1(2), 137–149. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1971.tb00358.x
- Rand, T. M., & Wexley, K. N. (1975). Demonstration of the Effect, “Similar to Me,” in Simulated Employment Interviews. Psychological Reports, 36(2), 535–544. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1922.214.171.1245
- Alicke, M. D., & Govorun, O. (2005). The Better-Than-Average Effect. In M. D. Alicke, D. A. Dunning, & J. I. Krueger (Eds.), The Self in Social Judgment (pp. 85–106). Psychology Press.