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What Biases Can Overshadow A Performance Management Review?

A scale showing biases in a performance management review.

We’re only human, and with­out know­ing it we might be let­ting our bias­es impact per­for­mance man­age­ment reviews. Which ones should we be watch­ing out for?

Per­for­mance reviews offer a lot of ben­e­fits — they can keep employ­ees moti­vat­ed, they can keep them on track and they can pro­vide man­agers with valu­able insights into the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and progress of their work­force. Hav­ing said that, per­for­mance reviews are con­duct­ed by human beings and are, there­fore, sub­ject to human bias­es that can ren­der a review unhelp­ful and unmotivating.

Per­for­mance man­age­ment reviews are here to stay. They’re an inte­gral ele­ment of any per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem, but they need to be con­duct­ed prop­er­ly. Man­agers need to be aware of cer­tain prej­u­dices and incli­na­tions that might steer a good per­for­mance appraisal off course.

Below, we’ll dis­cuss five per­for­mance review bias­es and how we, as man­agers and HR exec­u­tives, can over­come them to ensure fair, mean­ing­ful per­for­mance discussions.

1. Recen­cy bias

Recen­cy bias is one of the most com­mon bias­es that presents itself dur­ing per­for­mance reviews. Put sim­ply, recen­cy bias is a ten­den­cy to focus on events that have occurred late­ly, rather than eval­u­at­ing or judg­ing an employee’s per­for­mance as a whole, over a pro­longed peri­od of time.

If an employ­ee acts spec­tac­u­lar­ly and per­forms beyond expec­ta­tions the week before a review, it might over­shad­ow months of half-heart­ed per­for­mance. Equal­ly, despite a gen­er­al­ly excel­lent per­for­mance peri­od, if an employ­ee doesn’t per­form to expec­ta­tions just before a per­for­mance review, a man­ag­er might look on them unfavourably. Clear­ly, this isn’t fair or reflec­tive of an employee’s aver­age performance.

A great way of avoid­ing recen­cy bias alto­geth­er is by replac­ing annu­al per­for­mance reviews with reg­u­lar one-on-one per­for­mance dis­cus­sions. At Clear Review, we rec­om­mend month­ly check-ins. This means that per­for­mance can be addressed much more fre­quent­ly, man­age­ment and HR have a much clear­er idea as to pro­gres­sion and con­cerns, and man­ag­er and employ­ee will be able to devel­op a rela­tion­ship that encour­ages open, hon­est discussion.

2. The Halo’ effect

Anoth­er impor­tant bias to look out for is the noto­ri­ous Halo’ effect. Some employ­ees active­ly seek to estab­lish a rela­tion­ship with their man­agers, and as a result, they are able to make a con­nec­tion. These employ­ees will, nat­u­ral­ly, empha­sise their suc­cess­es and down­play (or not men­tion) their strug­gles. This means that the man­ag­er is more like­ly to relate to the employ­ee and like them, which caus­es them to look favourably on every­thing they do.

Dur­ing reviews, this halo effect will cause man­agers to focus on areas the employ­ee has excelled in, rather than assess­ing per­for­mance as a whole. This means the employ­ee in ques­tion will nev­er receive entire­ly hon­est, reflec­tive feed­back or advice.

To coun­ter­act the halo effect, man­agers should be mind­ful, and con­sid­er whether they are giv­ing employ­ees pref­er­en­tial treat­ment. Be wary of employ­ees who are reluc­tant to dis­cuss areas in which they feel they could devel­op. Try to be objec­tive, and assess per­for­mance based on goal com­ple­tion, impact and pro­gres­sion. This will give man­agers a clear indi­ca­tion of whether or not an employ­ee is per­form­ing well.

3. The Horns’ effect

The Horns’ effect is the oppo­site of the halo effect. Some employ­ees are intro­vert­ed, or reluc­tant to open­ly and fre­quent­ly dis­cuss wins’. They may also be less like­ly to strike up a rela­tion­ship with their man­agers. As a result, their good per­for­mance is not noticed or acknowl­edged, and they might fare poor­ly in a per­for­mance review.

Man­agers should remem­ber that many high per­form­ers are hard on them­selves and would rate them­selves poor­ly in a per­for­mance review. Peo­ple like this often suf­fer from Imposter Syn­drome, a psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion that caus­es us to believe we’re frauds, despite excel­lent performance.

This is anoth­er instance where the intro­duc­tion of con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance man­age­ment can help. Fre­quent dis­cus­sions allow man­agers to devel­op rela­tion­ships even with more intro­vert­ed employ­ees, and such con­ver­sa­tions also allow man­agers to ask the right ques­tions and get an accu­rate reflec­tion on how the employ­ee is far­ing, what they have accom­plished and areas in which they would ben­e­fit from training.

4. Pur­pose­ful bias

Pur­pose­ful bias is rel­a­tive­ly rare, but it can still crop up dur­ing per­for­mance reviews. This is when a man­ag­er inten­tion­al­ly sab­o­tages an employ­ee because they feel threat­ened by their tal­ents. To pro­tect their own posi­tion, such a man­ag­er might give a neg­a­tive review to a high-per­form­ing employee.

HR can com­bat this bias with career pro­gres­sion. Employ­ees should be giv­en a clear idea as to how they can progress with­in the com­pa­ny, what steps they need to take and what train­ing they need to com­plete. The com­pa­ny should make it clear that indi­vid­ual advance­ment ben­e­fits the whole organ­i­sa­tion, and we should encour­age, rather than dis­cour­age such ambition.

5. Gen­der bias

Whether we like to admit it or not, gen­der bias is still a con­cern in busi­ness, and this bias is clear­ly evi­dent in per­for­mance reviews, where women are often shortchanged.

Accord­ing to one study, women are 1.4 times more like­ly to receive crit­i­cal sub­jec­tive feed­back (as opposed to pos­i­tive feed­back or crit­i­cal objec­tive feed­back) when com­pared to their male coun­ter­parts. The same source, which col­lect­ed 248 reviews from 180 peo­ple, shows that when women receive feed­back, it is rarely con­struc­tive or clear — but it often gets quite personal.

What was inter­est­ing from the study was the fact that the gen­der of the man­ag­er didn’t mat­ter — both male and female man­agers were equal­ly as crit­i­cal to women. 58.9% of men in the sam­ple received crit­i­cal feed­back when com­pared to 87.9% of women. Inter­est­ing­ly, lan­guage used in per­for­mance man­age­ment reviews also changed, depend­ing on whether a woman or man was being assessed.

The word abra­sive’ was used in 71 out of the 94 crit­i­cal female reviews, where­as the word was nev­er used to describe a man. Instead, men were labelled author­i­ta­tive’ or assertive’.

Man­agers should be aware of the facts above, and be mind­ful of the lan­guage they use in per­for­mance reviews. Ques­tion whether you would use the same word to describe the oppo­site gen­der and whether your advice is con­struc­tive, clear and precise.

To find out how our per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware can help you con­duct fair, con­struc­tive employ­ee dis­cus­sions, get in touch for a free per­for­mance man­age­ment con­sul­ta­tion. Find out how your busi­ness can ben­e­fit from con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance management.