Performance appraisal methods: Flatter the HR Manager?

Employee scores on performance appraisals can be influenced by a number of different things. The evaluating manager’s mood, the economic climate, the employee’s past performance appraisal scores, and even simple quirks of personality can cause significant rating fluctuations.

Research from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management has found that past appraisals of an evaluating manager’s performance(even when completely made-up) have a dramatic effect on that manager’s view of their staff.

HR flattery battery

Can you supercharge a performance appraisal with flattery? Flickr/Roadsidepictures

Dr. Gary P. Latham and his colleagues first became interested in the correlation between employer and employee evaluations when a role ambiguity at a university caused 3 supervisors to evaluate professors instead of the usual 2. For each of the 10 instructors evaluated, the supervisors’ scores always ranked the same way.

For example, if Manager A gave a score of 6, Manager B always gave 5, and Manager C always gave 4. If Manager A gave a 4, Manager B always gave 3, and Manager C always gave 2.

All of this was despite the availability of more objective measurements, like the number of books published and the average feedback from students. 

To make matters more interesting, the researchers then found out that the supervisors’ own performance appraisal scores were consistently in that order as well.

For example, over the past few years, Manager A had scored better than his colleague Manager B, who scored better than her colleague Manager C.

Latham wanted to know if these results were meaningful, or if they were just a bizarre coincidence.

Performance appraisals in the lab

The researchers recruited 30 senior managers from private companies. All of them were told that they would be given a completely fictitious appraisal of their performance: Half were positive (eg. “You have outstanding management skills that are only surpassed by your interpersonal skills”), while half were negative (eg. “Your subordinates do not respect you and find it difficult to take your direction seriously”). 

All of the managers were then made to evaluate the performance of the same employee, based on his pre-taped interview. The researchers found that, even when you controlled for mood, managers who received positive reviews gave positive reviews, and managers who received negative reviews gave negative reviews.

To see if these results apply to the real world, Latham compared past performance evaluations of managers and employees at a Canadian manufacturing plant and at a Turkish retailer. He found a strong correlation between performance appraisal scores, even when the manager’s own evaluation was as much as 12 months before the employee’s.

In each test, the results held true despite the manager’s experience, true performance, culture, industry, mood, or access to data. The researchers suspect that managers accept their own evaluations as normal, and unconsciously transfer their scores(either good or bad) to evaluations of employees.

So what can be done? More research needs to take place before it’ll be clear how managers can mitigate the impact of their own evaluations on those of their employees. Latham theorizes that awareness training, self-reflection, and note-taking might help.

For now, it seems that the proper application of flattery could be enough to help everyone look sensational.

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Source: Latham, G.P., Budworth, M., Yanar, B., & Whyte, G. (2008). “The Influence of a Manager’s Own Performance Appraisal on the Evaluation of Others.” International Journal of Selection and Assessment 16(3). 220–228.

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