At the end of the performance cycle managers face a threatening reality: difficult conversations. These talks canvas a broad range of topics, such as pay, promotions, and the employee’s potential rating.
Unfortunately, these discussions are often fraught with bias.
Bias is the collection of mental shortcuts we take in order to make decisions. They aren’t inherently bad, but in big moments they can mean the difference between subpar reviews and glowing recommendations. Through its research and client work, NLI has found the key to minimizing the effects of bias in these situations are ongoing quality conversations.
The five big biases
There are five broad categories of bias NLI uses to help organizations change their thinking, language, and behavior. We call it the SEEDS Model®. It stands for Similarity, Expedience, Experience, Distance, and Safety.
Performance conversations may feature all five biases. For instance, a manager may be in a rush to get through a tense, nerve-wracking review and just defer to the most readily available data. That’s an expedience bias. Or, they may give a favorable review just because the employee is well-liked or has similar interests — a similarity bias.
NLI views this as a poor representation of dialogue. It doesn’t offer much insight into a person’s true performance to only review them once or several times a year. As a result, managers simply don’t have the line of sight to performance needed to make quality decisions about actual contribution and impact.
Quality conversations save the day
NLI’s perspective, based on the available research, compels leaders to have frequent coaching conversations that can unearth performance issues on a rolling, real-time basis. They can correct, reward, probe, and assist when employees actually need help, rather than try to diagnose and fix everything in one fell swoop a handful of times a year.
In working with 4,500 line managers at Cigna, for example, NLI found more regular conversations to be the solution to once-annual performance reviews that employees dubbed “inconsistent” and “frustrating.”
Specifically, Cigna engaged NLI to overhaul its performance management system — abolishing performance ratings, teaching managers the skills of constructive communication, and equipping all employees with a brain-based framework for giving and receiving feedback.
In the end, 94% of managers said their leadership skills had improved; managers felt more comfortable having regular performance conversations; and employee engagement and motivation rose.
Of course, these efforts can’t stamp out bias completely — humans, by virtue of having a brain, are biased. But regular conversations in which people can exchange ideas in a productive way may be the next best thing.