The 3 Most Common Manager Biases Tainting Performance Management

Article main image
Jun 13, 2019

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. This is No. 17 of the 708 articles. You can find the complete list here.


Most decisions we make as humans are biased. Take the research of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman who demonstrated that the vast majority of human decisions are based on biases, beliefs, and intuition, not facts or logic.

Whether it’s gender bias against women, or simple favoritism, biases affect how we rate employees. This is a real problem for companies trying to get the performance review process right.

When it comes to bias, knowledge is power. When you know what biases are and how they work, you can prevent them from affecting your company’s performance management process.

Here, we explore three of the most common performance review biases and how you can prevent them.

1. Gender bias

When giving feedback, people tend to focus more on the personality and attitudes of women. In contrast, they focus more on the behaviors and accomplishments of men.

Research by Culture Amp’s senior data scientist, Priya Sundararajan, found that, “Peer feedback provided by both male and female reviewers tends to focus equally on work- and personality-phrasing for male employees (for example, ‘Nick should gain more technical expertise in nonparametric ML models’) where female employees are nearly 1.4x more likely to receive personality phrases from male reviewers (such as ‘Sue is a great team player and very easy to work with’) and less likely to receive work-related phrases.”

Her study reviewed 25,000 peer feedback statements across a performance cycle of nearly 1,500 employees.

Prevention strategy — Take a fill-in-the-blanks approach to feedback to help nudge managers into specifically talking about situations, behaviors, and impacts rather than personality or style.

2. Recency bias

When reviewing an employee’s performance, managers tend to focus on the most recent time period instead of the total time period.

Prevention strategy — Document employee performance at different points in time, giving reviewers more frequent data points to pull from across the full period of review. For example, someone completed internal training, ask their instructor about their participation or contributions.

3. Primacy bias

When reviewing employee performance, managers focus on information learned early on in the relationship, like first impressions.

According to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of Columbia Business school first impressions matter more than we think. “The information we learn first about another person disproportionately shapes our understanding of them afterward,” she says. Once you start to form an initial impression of someone, you look for information that confirms that impression and tend to ignore everything else.

Prevention strategy — Preventing primacy bias is similar to preventing recency bias. Use a dossier of employee performance across time to dampen managers’ tendency to weight their first impressions more heavily.

Recognizing your own biases

These three biases are just the tip of the iceberg (see a full list of 10 performance review biases). As humans, we’re not so great at recognizing our own biases either, which is why it’s so important to be aware of the ones that exist.

Project Implicit out of Harvard University developed the Implicit Association Test – freely available – to help people understand their own biases. Try it out, know yourself, and use the information available to you as an HR leader to help your company’s managers give better, more objective, performance reviews.