Measuring employee performance can be a daunting task, especially if you just don't have the time as a small business owner to evaluate the capabilities of others. The challenge of assessing work and delivering feedback is made harder by the subtle, but significant, biases we carry around in our heads. These cognitive traps can cloud our judgment and complicate decisions about pay and promotion.

While a number of my clients have taken positive steps towards increasing contact time between managers and their reports, they confide that the real challenge may be lurking deep inside the unconscious mind. Preventing these latent biases from creeping into the talent cycle starts with a clearer understanding of what these traps are and how to check them before it's too late. 

Common Cognitive Traps

When I ask managers about their experience rating others, they typically identify the following four cognitive traps that interfere with their better judgment. Chances are you've seen yourself unwittingly experience one or more of these pitfalls: 

  • Central tendency bias: In the context of performance measurement, this refers to the tendency of giving your employees average marks across the board. Whether it's a lack of performance data or the fear of assigning a low rating, you may be falsely lumping people in the middle, even though they deserve better -- or worse.
  • Recency bias: This happens whenever you assess an employee's performance based on recent events, giving undue weight to "right now" behaviors. This clips the true picture of performance and tells only a small part of an employee's story. 
  • Spillover bias: The opposite of recency is spillover, which unfairly assumes that a person's past performance continues to show up in the present. This pessimistic view of others dismisses the notion of a growth mindset and chains people to a past they can't easily overcome.
  • Confirmation bias: Better known as the "halo effect," this is an overly positive view of people based on past experiences, personal affinities, or pre-conceived beliefs. It leads to favoritism, better reviews and an overall rosier view of performance.

While bias cannot be eliminated altogether, there are deliberate steps you can take to limit its effect on the way you make decisions, especially when it comes to your employees' future in your company. 

1. Become a "learn it all."

Instead of presuming to know everything about another person, develop a genuine interest in understanding their unique point of view. This "learn it all" approach fosters curiosity, reveals new insights, and can even strengthen relationships. 

2. Flip the conversation.

Performance reviews are notorious for turning into one-sided monologues dominated by the perceptions of the person giving them. Try reversing the dynamic by asking employees to describe something they wish others knew about them -- their work style, recent achievements, or interests outside of the office. You'd be amazed at how much you don't know about your team.

3. Invite a self-critique.

If you can't trust your own assessment, ask for someone else's -- your employee. Every few weeks, or at the end of a project, invite your team to write their own evaluation. I encourage my clients to use a simple matrix that is broken into two columns: "Do over" and "do again." Employees find the exercise refreshing, since it gives them opportunities to reflect and reframe, and are often surprised by the insights it provides.  

Fairness and objectivity are essential elements of a robust review process. When you pay closer attention to the voices of your employees, you're more likely to recognize them for who they really are.