What pot plants and lottery tickets have to teach us about rating calibration

(A version of this article was published on HRM Online on 11 January 2019)

Calibration – the collective review and adjustment of ratings – is widely used by organisations to remove bias and inconsistency from the performance management process.

However, it also removes control and ownership from the manager and employee, and that can be damaging. This has significant implications for HR professionals. But to understand more about the neuroscience behind this we first need to look at lottery tickets, aged care and pot plants.

The human preference for control

Humans like to be in control; we are wired this way. Evolutionary theorists may debate exactly why this is, but as Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert puts it, “being effective – changing things, influencing things, making things happen – is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed.”

Psychologists have devised many experiments to prove this. One of the more notable – and inadvertently tragic – involved pot plants. Researchers gave residents of a care home a plant. Half were told that they were responsible for looking after the plants, while the remainder were told someone else would.

After six months, 30% of the second group had died, compared to only 15% of the first. Controlling for other variables, the researchers concluded that having control over the plant made the difference.

In a follow-up study, residents were split into two groups and assigned a student to visit them. Group A got to control when their visitor came to see them, but group B did not. After two months residents in group A were happier, healthier and taking less medication than those in group B.

Tragically, the researchers found that after they stopped this study, a disproportionate number of people in group A died; They concluded that having control and then losing it is worse than never having it.

There are plenty of more mundane, illogical even, examples of the human need for control. People feel more certain they will win the lottery if they can control the numbers chosen. and they will most likely bet more money if they do so. Studies show that you will feel more confident of winning a dice toss if you can throw the dice.

Having a sense of control over your actions matters a lot. And as we’ve seen, the consequences of losing that control are not great. Positive psychology guru Marty Seligman sums it up well: “If humans lose their ability to control things…they become helpless, hopeless, depressed.”

The implications for ratings calibration

You can probably see where this is going. While there are many sound reasons to calibrate performance ratings, doing so takes control of the process away, not just from the manager but also the employee. This is damaging for both parties.

The manager knows that the rating decision is not ultimately theirs, and that it can be changed – undermined – by others.

The employee feels a loss of control because they are being measured against other people (whose performance they can’t control) and their rating is ultimately determined by people who they may not know very well.

This lack of control will be familiar to HR professionals. Many often hear of managers failing to take ownership of ratings that change post-calibration, and employees can tell stories of their manager handing down their calibrated rating with the caveat that “if it were up to me, I would have said you exceeded expectations.”

But as we’ve seen, this is more than simple dissatisfaction with a policy. Calibration challenges our fundamental need to be in control, not at a process level, but from a far deeper neurological standpoint.

How to manage the control-calibration paradox

Clearly HR leaders need to manage the impact of this loss of control. First of all, let’s look at what not to do:

  1. Stop calibration. If the process causes problems then just stop it, right? This is a bad idea. Rater bias is a well-established phenomenon and the fact is that relying on one individual’s opinion generates inconsistent and subjective results. Calibration has an important role to play
  2. Remove performance ratings. Assuming your organisation has finite resources, cannot promote everyone and wants to reward high performance, then some form of differentiation between employees is needed (whether or not you share the rating with the employee).
  3. Remove manager responsibility for rating. If calibration should stay then why not remove the manager from the process? Doing this would fundamentally change the role of the manager and their relationship with employees. Lines of authority and control are further blurred and you will most likely exacerbate the issue.

Tips for HR leaders

So what should HR leaders do to ensure that the calibration process is as effective as it can be?

  1. Recognise the complexity of the issue. Most organisations accept that there is an issue, but very few see it as anything more than managerial shortcoming; “they made a poor decision on the rating and they need to own that” is a typical view. The first step then, is for HR leaders to recognise – and educate business stakeholders – that the loss of control inherent in calibration is a genuine issue that requires a sensible and considered response.
  2. Manager and employee education: Explain the reason why calibration is used. Explain to employees the concept of rater bias and the need to differentiate. Explain all this to managers too, but also share the science that makes them seek control. This can help all parties understand the rationale behind calibration, and better manage their reactions.
  3. Manage the discussion robustly. This of course should happen anyway, but it’s worth emphasising. Make sure that the calibration discussion is rigorously evidence-based, have the right people in the room, make sure they understand concepts such as rater bias, and ensure everyone is clear on what the process is designed to achieve. If managers can see that calibration drives better outcomes then they will support it more readily.
  4. Be as transparent as possible. This means feedback must be provided to managers and employees on what is discussed and why changes are made. This provides confidence in the process, and crucially it creates a strong incentive for those involved to up their game. If you know your opinions will be shared then you will think carefully about voicing them. You could even consider having observers – peers from other business units, or even union or employee representatives, for example – in the calibration sessions to support this.
  5. Get feedback. Use surveys and interviews to check how far managers and employees understand why ratings change, and how this was communicated to them. This helps flag where to refine the process in future. The act of surveying also sends the message that you value their opinions, and knowing that their actions will be measured can encourage managers to take ownership of the process.

The calibration process is an important part of building a fair and transparent way to measure and reward performance. But as we have seen, it can create a perceived loss of control for both managers and employees.

This need for control is hard-wired into us. Understanding this, and taking steps to manage it, are key responsibilities for HR leaders.

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