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Cognitive biases in performance reviews

You’re only human after all: How to reduce cognitive biases in performance reviews.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

For many businesses, performance reviews make up the central pillar of employee feedback (if this is your company, come speak to us about why this is not the way to approach feedback in the 21st-century workplace!). This is why it’s so important to get them right. But for the time being, unless 2020 gets rounded off with a Terminator-style machine uprising, managers are still only human. 

This means that even the most experienced and highly trained of bosses are still susceptible to the scourge of all human activity: bias. 

So, as you might have guessed, that’s our topic for the day: Biases in performance reviews, how they impact the workplace, and what managers can do to overcome them.

Conscious bias versus unconscious bias

Before we get into how biases reduce the effectiveness of reviews, we need to talk about conscious and unconscious bias. While both types can interfere with your ability to review employee performance effectively, one can be a lot harder to address than the other. Conscious biases are arguably easier to deal with, because they’re rooted in things an individual actively believes. While racist and sexist beliefs can still be held unconsciously, overt bigotry (such as someone hating women or viewing BAME employees as inherently untrustworthy) is an example of conscious bias.

Unconscious bias tends to crop up when we need to make quick decisions. No matter how objective you think you’re being, any snap judgement you make is going to be informed by your cumulative knowledge, beliefs and experiences. 

A classic example is the riddle of a father bringing their recently shot son into hospital, only to find that the attending surgeon cannot operate because the child is also theirs. Many people struggle to find the answer to this, because they assume the surgeon to be male. So it’s the unconscious biases that often proves trickier to deal with, because you can still hold these beliefs while having the best of intentions towards your employees.

The different forms of cognitive bias

Despite essentially just being a lump of electrified gristle, the human brain is marvellous in in its processing power that still puts modern computers to shame. But despite this computational power we all have between our ears, the human mind still has limitations and still cuts corners in order to work more efficiently. So the reason that humans have biases is down to how our brains categorise information.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who founded the field of behavioural economics alongside Amos Tversky, won a Nobel Prize for his research into cognitive biases. Other researchers, such as Dan Ariely or Paul Slovic, have also contributed a lot to this field. As a result, we know there are potentially hundreds of biases that can impact workplace decision-making, but we’ve included some of the most relevant and interesting biases in performance reviews here:

  • Anchoring: Anchoring is when you place too much importance on an initial piece of information you receive, regardless of how relevant it turns out to be in the decision-making process. For instance, maybe a new hire moved out to the city where your organisation is based, and were late a few times early on because they’re still new to the city. These initial faux pas may colour your perception of that employee’s time management skills even as they start being perfectly punctual once they’ve settled in.
  • Availability heuristic: In this form of cognitive bias, the individual makes an important decision based on the information that’s easiest for them to recall, and not necessarily the most relevant facts. So, for example, you might unintentionally be basing the results of a performance review on an employee’s performance in recent weeks. This can be problematic, as it can result in the employee’s achievements at other points in the year being overlooked. And if your employees don’t feel like their hard work is being recognised, they’re liable to become disengaged over time. This is why having an effective framework for feedback between performance reviews is essential.
  • The Dunning-Krueger effect: In the words of Patrick Star from Spongebob, ‘dumb people are always blissfully unaware of how dumb they really are.’ And that’s basically what the Dunning-Krueger effect is. The less informed you are about a subject, the more likely you are to think you understand it. And there’s nothing more irritating than being talked down to by a layperson about your primary area of expertise, so if you manage a lot of personnel with highly specialised skill-sets, the Dunning-Krueger effect is one of the major biases in performance reviews you need to watch out for. This is why trust plays such an important role in the workplace, as you need to be able to defer to the knowledge of your team and peers.
  • Representative heuristic: This is essentially the stereotyping bias. This bias causes people to make judgements based on pre-existing assumptions. So, for example, a representative heuristic bias in the hiring process would mean hiring someone who fits your stereotype for the sort of person doing that job, like if you think all IT personnel are overweight, nerdy guys with questionable facial hair, and then only end up hiring people who fit that mould. This is a particularly risky bias to leave unaddressed, as it can easily move into the realms of discrimination. Case in point, a female employee asks in her performance review about a promotion, only to be snubbed because their manager doesn’t think women can perform well in high-pressure leadership roles due to a ridiculous stereotype.
  • Regression to the mean: This is basically the act of making predictions based on faulty information that fails to account for someone’s average rate of performance. An example from Khaneman’s research is that of Israeli pilots. Instructors preferred criticism to praise, as they noticed that pilots seemed to perform worse after being praised, but better after being criticised. Khaneman realised that this was not the case, and that pilots regressed to their mean rate of performance regardless of praise or criticism.

Reducing the impact of biases in performance reviews

It’s impossible to do away with unconscious bias entirely. It’s a result of the brain trying to work as efficiently as possible to help you excel physically and socially. But managers have a duty of care to their employees, and part of that duty is mediating their unconscious biases in performance reviews to the best of their ability.

Ultimately, the best cure for bad performance management is the same as any poor management practice: Emphasise workplace education, especially proper management training. Too many people end up in leadership roles without any formal instruction for managing others, and this opens the door for ineffective or discriminatory leadership, unconscious or otherwise.

If you’re worried about your own objectivity as a manager, try prefacing your performance reviews with 360° feedback. Getting insight from an employee’s colleagues, as well as anyone else who’s managed them, can help to cover your blind spots and provide more comprehensive insight for the employee to use as a basis for self-improvement. You may even realise, based on what others say, that an employee you thought was just okay has actually been the secret MVP of your entire department the whole time.

To read our latest employee engagement insights, and to find out how Weekly10 can enhance your performance review process, check out our blog today!

Weekly10’s powerful employee engagement and performance tools help maximise the effectiveness of your people. Why not check out a demo with one of our team?

Head of People Science