Cognitive biases are inherent patterns of thinking that can influence decision-making and judgement. In the context of performance management, several cognitive biases can impact how managers assess and also evaluate employees: these biases can lead to inaccurate or unfair perceptions of performance.

Our brains are like intricate machines, constantly processing information and making decisions. But these decisions aren’t always perfect. Inherent patterns of thinking, known as cognitive biases, can subtly influence how we judge and assess others, impacting areas like performance management.

In the realm of employee evaluations, these biases can be particularly troublesome. They can lead managers to form inaccurate or unfair perceptions of an employee’s performance, hindering their growth and development, and ultimately, impacting the organization’s success. In other words, imagine a manager favoring an employee who shares their alma mater, overlooking the quiet star who consistently delivers exceptional results: this, unfortunately, is the reality of cognitive bias in action.

Here are 10 cognitive biases that can impact how performance is managed:

Halo Effect:

The halo effect occurs when a manager’s overall positive impression of an employee influences their perception of specific traits or behaviors. For example, if an employee is liked by the manager, they might receive higher ratings in all areas, even if their performance in certain aspects is subpar.

Horns Effect:

The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. It occurs when a manager’s negative impression of an employee clouds their judgement of the employee’s strengths and achievements. This bias can lead to undervaluing an employee’s contributions.

Leniency Cognitive Bias:

This bias involves consistently rating employees more favorably or leniently than their actual performance merits. Managers with a leniency bias may hesitate to provide honest feedback or differentiate between high and low performers.

Central Tendency Bias:

Managers with a central tendency bias tend to rate all employees as average, regardless of their actual performance. This bias can lead to an inaccurate representation of the workforce’s capabilities.

Recency Bias:

Recency bias occurs when a manager’s evaluation is disproportionately influenced by an employee’s recent performance, either positive or negative, rather than considering their overall performance over time.

Confirmation Cognitive Bias:

Confirmation bias involves seeking out and giving more weight to information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions about an employee. In this case, managers may focus on evidence that supports their initial impressions and overlook contradictory information.

Similarity Bias:

Managers may unconsciously favor employees who share similar backgrounds, interests, or characteristics. Eventually leading to unequal opportunities and treatment within the workforce.

Contrast Effect:

The contrast effect occurs when an employee’s performance is evaluated in comparison to the performance of their peers rather than against objective criteria. This can lead to inflated or deflated evaluations based on the performance of others.

Anchoring Cognitive Bias:

Anchoring bias involves relying too heavily on initial information when making evaluations. If a manager’s initial impression of an employee is negative, subsequent performance may be unfairly interpreted through that negative lens.

Availability Heuristic:

Managers may be more influenced by recent or easily remembered incidents when evaluating an employee’s performance, even if those incidents are not representative of their overall contributions.

Recognizing these cognitive biases is the first step towards mitigating their impact on performance management. Training managers to be aware of these biases, encouraging objective data-driven evaluations, and promoting regular and open communication with employees can help create a more fair and accurate performance management process. See our following recommendations to tackle the cognitive bias impact in your company.

How to mitigate the cognitive biases impact

Understanding cognitive biases is only the first step. The crucial question becomes: how can we mitigate their influence in our work environment? Here are some practical strategies to incorporate into your performance management system:

1. Embrace Structured Reviews:

Ditch vague and subjective assessments. Instead, utilize standardized review forms and rubrics that focus on specific performance criteria and objective measures: this reduces unconscious bias by setting clear expectations and minimizing room for personal interpretation.

2. Calibrate Assessments:

Gather multiple perspectives when you implement peer-review and 360 feedback systems in the evaluation process. This helps expose individual biases and also promotes a more holistic understanding of each employee’s performance.

3. Focus on Behavior, Not Person:

Separate the individual from their work. Focus on specific actions, behaviors, and outcomes, avoiding sweeping generalizations based on personality traits or group affiliations.

4. Self-Awareness & Training:

Equip managers with training on cognitive biases and their impact on evaluation. Encourage self-reflection exercises to help them identify potential biases within themselves.

5. Open Communication & Feedback:

Foster a culture of open communication and regular feedback loops. As a result, allow employees to provide feedback on the evaluation process and raise concerns about potential biases.

6. Transparency & Accountability vs Cognitive Bias:

Make the performance management process and criteria transparent to everyone. That is to say, clearly communicate expectations and how the evaluations are being done. By definition, trust has to go both ways. So, if you can’t trust your people by being honest with them, it sends a clear message that they should keep you at arm’s length too.

Lastly, remember: mitigating bias is an ongoing journey, not a one-time fix. By actively adopting these strategies and fostering a culture of awareness and accountability, organizations can also create a fairer and more equitable performance management system that empowers individuals and unlocks the full potential of their workforce.