Leaders May Be Sabotaging Their Performance Reviews and Don’t Even Know It

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Due to the effects of bias, managers may be conducting performance reviews in such a way that sets employees on unwanted career paths for years.

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Leaders naturally want to save time by making decisions more quickly. If they can take the right mental shortcuts, the thinking goes, they’ll have more time and energy to devote to other matters.

But there’s at least one setting where leaders have no business making such budget cuts: performance reviews.

As they exist today, the typical performance reviews are overwhelmingly biased. Leaders are more inclined to look for information that confirms their existing beliefs — as fast as possible — than they are to gather a range of opinions and reflect carefully on the facts. These lapses in decision-making can affect how employees are assigned tasks, promoted, and compensated — potentially for years to come.

Slowing down, seeking out

Our research makes it clear that humans can’t eliminate bias entirely. (As we like to say, If you have a brain, you’re biased.) The good news is we can take steps to mitigate the effect bias has on our decisions and social interactions. And perhaps the most important bias we can address to improve performance reviews is the expedience bias.

Expedience bias is the brain’s tendency to rely on information that’s easiest to get to solve a given problem, with the ultimate goal of preserving energy. In performance contexts, expedience bias compels us to favor data that’s easier to obtain over that which is harder to dig up.

In practice, that can involve a manager relying solely on sales numbers to gauge a salesperson’s worth, or judging a project manager based on how many deals reached the finish line. These assessments may be useful, but they don’t tell the complete story of how the employee is faring in his or her role. Salespeople who miss their targets may be busy helping colleagues hit their own goals, boosting the entire team’s performance. Project managers that seem to be underperforming could actually be overwhelmed by a sudden surge in the volume of new business.

Managers can take these factors into consideration only if they actively choose to slow down and seek out diverse forms of data. Quantitative information is good — it helps managers and employees align around certain goals — but it only makes sense if it’s paired with qualitative data. Managers can ask people in other departments for examples of how the employee adds value. Or they can begin a conversation by asking the employee directly what they think of their own performance.

Measuring what matters

The goal in these cases isn’t to gain an “objective” view of someone’s performance; brains are naturally biased, so that will never happen.

The goal is to paint a more complete picture than the expedience bias would normally lead managers to create. Managers will be able to help employees gain a greater sense of fairness in the review, boost the employee’s sense of status, and help them see just how valuable they are across the company, not just to their own team. Taking the extra effort also gives managers more solid ground on which to dole out raises and promotions, reducing the chance of dispute or resentment.

Employees can help their managers by tracking certain agreed-upon metrics until the next review. With greater transparency and communication, teams can improve faster and get more meaningful work done over the long-haul.

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