Subjective Performance Reviews: If You Can’t Beat Them, Use Them

Do you think you’re a good judge of people? Could you say which employees are top performers and which need some nudging in the right direction? Most of us would probably say yes, especially if we’re in HR or managerial roles.

And most of us would probably be wrong.

The Idiosyncratic Rater Effect

In the last 15 years or so, there have been a number of studies proving that people are actually pretty bad at judging each other. It’s not that we misevaluate others on purpose (although that does happen); the source of our subjectivity and false impressions are usually subconscious. That is, how I rate you on your performance could very well reveal more about me than about you.

This is because people use their own experiences and worldviews to interpret what they see around them, so all their judgments are relative. This is known as the idiosyncratic rater effect. And it can teach us a lot about subjective performance reviews.

In one study, researchers examined the ratings of managers, subordinates, and peers to get a sense of the idiosyncratic rater effect within a 360-degree performance review system. They found that an average of 62 percent of a rater’s score on a performance review was formed based on personal idiosyncrasies rather than the subject’s actual performance.

Subjective Performance Reviews

It’s not all that surprising when you apply this concept to other judgment calls we make on a regular basis. For example, imagine we asked a group of people to rate different fruits based on taste and texture. These ratings wouldn’t tell us very much about the fruits themselves—instead, we would learn which fruits the people like or don’t like based on their individual preferences. If we were trying to identify which fruit is best based on this data, we wouldn’t get very far. All the answers are highly subjective.

This means it might be time to re-evaluate your organization’s subjective performance review system.

Questions about abstract concepts like teamwork or innovation can’t accurately measure an employee’s true potential in those areas. If you rate Raquel as a great listener, you’re really indicating that Raquel is a better listener than you are.

Ask the Right Questions

We’re all human, which means we’re all prone to subjectivity—there’s no way around it. But before you lose all hope of trying to measure and manage performance within your organization, consider this: subjectivity doesn’t have to be a problem.

You just have to understand how to work with it.

Instead of asking employees and managers to rate each other on scales from one to ten, figure out the simple, open-ended questions that get to the heart of the matter. Numbers should be reserved for those things you can measure with numbers—phone calls made, reports completed, articles written, and the like.

Abstract qualities like value-to-company and time management are more difficult to measure with precise numbers. You need to switch the method.

One way we like to do this at BambooHR is by providing our managers with questions that require some self-reflection. For example, we don’t ask managers how valuable each employee is to the company; instead, we ask them to finish this phrase: “If [Employee Name] got a job offer elsewhere, I would…”.

This open-ended question makes managers consider in real terms how they feel about different employees. And since people are much better at judging their own feelings rather than others’ performance, the information we get using this method is more valuable and accurate. Subjectivity works for us instead of against us.

By looking at responses to these types of subjective questions, you can get to the information that really matters like employee engagement, performance strengths, and opportunities for improvement. After all, your performance management system isn’t about numbers—it’s about people.

And when you focus on your people, success is sure to follow.

Want to learn more about perfecting your performance management system? Download The Definitive Guide to Performance Management for free today!

P.S. Here are some performance review examples!