objective performance reviews

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Human Insight #6:


In Human Insight #6 you learn to hold more objective performance reviews by evaluating different team members on a level playing field.


To do this you need to counter 3 types of bias:

1. Affinity bias (we prefer what is similar to us),

2. Recency bias (we focus on here and now), and

3. Negativity bias (we focus on what goes wrong).

If you read my previous blogs, I hope the main message is becoming clear: we are all ‘humans’, not ‘econs’ (R. Thaler). ‘Econs’ take the best possible decision, taking all relevant information into account. ‘Humans’ are biased and predictably irrational: we judge on the basis of first impressions, think short term, prefer the status quo and are continuously and subconsciously affected by our environment.


In today’s workplace our tendency to make quick judgements undermines efforts towards more diversity and inclusion. Our biased thinking stands in the way of holding impartial performance reviews – reviews where you evaluate the performance of all team members on a level playing field.


When it comes to managing talent in your organisation, it is crucial to:

1. raise awareness of our biased thinking, and

2. design organisational processes such that they counter the unwanted effects of bias.



How does implicit bias undermine the objectivity of performance reviews? 


When reviewing performance, three biases undermine the objectivity of your judgement.


We humans:

  1. Prefer what is similar to us (affinity bias)
  2. Focus on here and now (recency bias)
  3. Focus on what goes wrong (negativity bias – see also Human Insight 5)



Affinity bias: We prefer what is similar to us


The bias. Affinity bias entails that we see someone in a more positively light when he or she is more similar to us. Based on similarity, we (unconsciously) categorise people into in-group (those who are ‘one of us’) and out-group (those who are not).


For example, affinity bias may explain why a male manager might evaluate another man in his team more favourably, why people with a different skin colour might have to perform better just to get equal recognition, etc.



"Affinity bias: we see someone in a more positive light

when he or she is more similar to us"


How to counter it. As we favour those who are more similar to us, the key point here is to find common ground between yourself and the person you are about to review.


For example: Do you share a common approach to handling projects? Have you worked together on an event recently? Explicitly discuss this point of communality in the beginning of the review.


Doing this will prime your brain to see this person as part of your in-group, and thus to evaluate him or her as favourably as you would that employee in your team who you are much more similar to.



Recency bias: We focus on here and now


The bias. Recency bias implies that we assign more value to what has recently happened. (Just as we also assign more value to what happens near to us in physical space.)


As manager you will thus tend to focus the performance review on what happened the last couple of weeks. If your organisation holds performance reviews once (or even twice) a year, this is hardly a fair assessment of how your team member evolved over the entire period.



"Recency bias: we assign more value to what has recently happened."


How to counter it. As your brain tends to disregard what happened in the past, you need to make sure to take explicit note of it. And I mean that literally! Write things down as they occur, keep a journal of employee feedback. As I mentioned in my previous blog, this will also allow you to give team members and colleagues more regular feedback – resulting in higher employee engagement.


Writing things down also allows you to give feedback in terms of observed behaviour (we can adjust our behaviour), rather than in terms of personal characteristics (which we cannot change).



Negativity bias: We focus on what goes wrong


The bias. Negativity bias concerns our brain’s built-in tendency to emphasize the negative. This implies that we notice negative things more when they occur and that we remember them better.


Thus, you will notice it more easily when a member of your team makes a mistake. However, our brain considers the ‘all goes well’-scenario to be the default situation. As a result you will not pay much attention to it.


Negativity bias also implies that the person being reviewed remembers points of criticism much better than points of praise.



"Negativity bias: we give too much attention to what goes wrong."


How to counter it. Just as with the previous bias, the key is to realise our brain tends to assign too much weight to some information (in this case: what goes wrong), while disregarding other things (in this case: all that goes according to plan).


  1. As for the previous bias, make sure to write positive achievements of team members down as they occur, keep a journal of employee feedback. This way you have a whole period worth of information to fall back on during the review.
  1. Take into account the negativity bias in the design of your organisation’s performance review template. Make sure the space allowed for ‘strengths’ is observably larger than that for ‘areas for improvement’. Research points out that the ratio of positives to negatives should be about 4 to 1 if you want an employee to consider that the performance review was ‘even-handed’.





In our in-house training "Countering implicit bias in selection and promotion" you will learn to counter the effects of unconscious stereotypes in recruitment and evaluation processes. This allows you to attract – and retain! – the best talent, while also increasing diversity in your organization. You can also follow this as an open training through Kluwer opleidingen (in Dutch, English on request).

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