management bias and employee engagement

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Human Insight #3:




(For non-managers: You can also apply this in your partner relationship)

In Human Insight #3 people managers will learn how to make use of the so-called 'positive illusion' to increase engagement in their teams and even improve employee performance.

Managers - like all of us - are fascinating. They tend to see themselves as rational beings, who carefully weigh all pros and cons before making a decision. Who distinguish clearly between objective factors and subjective motivations. Surely in no way is their behaviour influenced by their environment.



Research confirms: managers tend to overestimate themselves.

Research confirms: managers - like all of us - tend to overestimate themselves, a human tendency referred to as self-serving bias. As a result, we recognize thinking errors and bias in others, but have an own bias blind spot.


What is unique about management bias, though, is that you can turn it to your advantage. As a people manager, you can use it strategically to increase employee engagement, and even to improve actual employee performance. How? By making use of the so-called 'positive illusion'. Let me explain.

Bias plays a role in how you relate to your employees.

As a manager, you have a series of (unfounded) presuppositions about your people and how they perform. These preconceived notions can be positive, neutral or negative.


Research shows that these presuppositions of managers have an effect on the actual performance of the people in their team. In an article in the Harvard Business Review with the notable title “If Your Boss Thinks You’re Awesome, You Will Become More Awesome” Zenger & Folkman show how the leaders who systematically see the best in their people actually make them perform better, while those managers who are most critical meet with the opposite effect. In their study, the authors distinguish between ‘positive-rating’ managers (managers who consistently rate their reports higher compared to fellow-managers) on the one hand and 'negative-rating' managers (who consistently rate their reports lower compared to fellow-managers) on the other.


The results?

  • Employees with a 'positive-rating' manager show a significantly higher level of engagement.
  • The positive management bias of ‘positive-rating’ leaders translates into measureable better performance by their reports. Positive management bias therefore works as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. As the authors state: “If your boss thinks you’re awesome, you will become more awesome”.


The takeaway for leaders and managers?

  • Firstly (this is not new): Use recognition and positive feedback to increase engagement in your team. The effect is largest when recognition/feedback is given on a regular basis. Timeliness is also important: do not allow too much time to lapse between performance and recognition – it cannot wait until the annual evaluation!
  • Secondly, the positive illusion: We humans are all heavily influenced by our environment. We adapt our behaviour according to the stimuli we receive. Make use of this insight. As a leader, try to consistently display a positive management bias: Treat your employees as if they are 'best in business'. They will prove you right.



And how does this work in your partner relationship?

The positive illusion also plays here. In an article in Psychological Science Murray et. al. state that the (unrealistic) idealisation of the partner prevents the decline of marital satisfaction. Or, how the fact that love is blind may further your overall happiness in life.


In this incompany training for people managers and HR professionals you will learn how to increase employee engagement and intrinsic motivation. I also give this as an open training for Kluwer Opleidingen “HR tools & technieken voor employee engagement” (in Dutch, available in English on request).

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