As I observed recently in a LinkedIn post, January is often the time for annual appraisals.  Leaders, teams and individuals are examining their and others’ performance over the past 12 months, evaluating progress, defining goals and setting objectives for the year ahead. Whatever form they take in your organisation, annual appraisals provide an opportunity for reflection and – to put it bluntly – judgement.

But what if our judgement is being clouded by unconscious bias? How much are our assessments of others – and behaviour towards them – coloured by imperceptible prejudice or favouritism, and what is the consequence of this?

The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition

In his excellent book The Culture Code (which we highly recommend), Daniel Coyle describes a fascinating experiment carried out by a man called Robert Rosenthal:

“He approached a California public elementary school and offered to test the school’s students with a newly developed intelligence-identification tool, called the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition, which could accurately predict which children would excel academically in the coming year. The school naturally agreed, and the test was administered to the entire student body. A few weeks later, teachers were provided with the names of the children (about 20 percent of the student body) who had tested as high-potentials. These particular children, the teachers were informed, were special. Though they might not have performed well in the past, the test indicated that they possessed “unusual potential for intellectual growth.” (The students were not informed of the test results.)

“The following year Rosenthal returned to measure how the high-potential students had performed. Exactly as the test had predicted, the first- and second-grade high-potentials had succeeded to a remarkable degree: the first-graders gained 27 IQ points (versus 12 points for the rest of the class); and the second-graders gained 17 points (versus 7 points). In addition, the high-potentials thrived in ways that went beyond measurement. They were described by their teachers as being more curious, happier, better adjusted, and more likely to experience success as adults.  What’s more, the teachers reported that they had enjoyed teaching that year more than any year in the past.

“Here’s the twist: the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition was complete baloney. In fact, the “high-potentials” had been selected at random. The real subject of the test was not the students but the narratives that drive the relationship between the teachers and the students.”

Just as they did for the students and teachers in the school, it seems to me that the findings of this study have the potential to transform workplace performance and are particularly relevant to annual appraisals.

Behaviour change

Rosenthal observed that just by changing the narrative from “These are average kids” to “These are special kids, destined to succeed”, the teachers were “reoriented…creating a cascade of behaviors that guided the student toward that future.”

He categorised the changes in four ways:

  1. Warmth – teachers were kinder towards and more attentive of the ‘special’ kids
  2. Input – the teachers gave them more learning material
  3. Response-opportunity – teachers called on these students more often and listened to them better
  4. Feedback – teachers provided more feedback, especially if a student made a mistake

Just through these tiny micro-behavioural changes over the course of a year, “they created a virtuous spiral that helped students thrive in ways that exceeded their so-called limits.”

In the context of the workplace, how often are managers and leaders subconsciously affecting a team member’s ability to excel by limiting their expectations?  If we’re told that someone is a “high potential”, do we treat them differently, at the expense of those we perceive to be “average”?

During annual appraisals, we naturally tend to set our expectations for the year ahead based on past performance. We seek to stretch those we consider to be our star performers, perhaps scheduling in more time with them and investing greater resources to help them succeed.  Conversely, those of a less shiny hue may be left to languish on the sidelines or even euphemistically earmarked for ‘reorganisation’.

Unintentional or otherwise, Rosenthal’s work reveals just how damaging such judgements can be, and not just for the team member; there are consequences for the wider organisation and even the leaders themselves.

Profit and Smiles

Clearly, if leaders can reclassify more “high-potentials” among their team as Rosenthal did in the school, the individuals’ successes will give them an incredible sense of self-worth, not to mention significant material rewards such as promotions and pay rises. And, of course, the organisation will benefit enormously too, from commercial gain and reputational plaudits as well as greater employee engagement.

But there’s another really important factor revealed by Rosenthal’s study: the experience of the teachers when they believed their pupils to be more able was also transformed. They had more fun doing their jobs than they had ever had before!

If leaders and managers can achieve this crucial mindset shift – by recalibrating their perceptions of their team and developing an expectation of greatness – they will also increase their own job satisfaction exponentially.

This is the effect we call Profit and Smiles, where an organisation and its people experience the rewards (both emotionally and financially) of higher performance.

Changing our mindset

We make judgements all the time about people’s abilities, including our own.  At work, at home, even in casual encounters with strangers.  But these judgements are based largely on opinion and perception rather than facts. And even when there is data to support our views, as Rosenthal has shown, our interpretation of the facts (or, in the case of the school experiment, fiction presented as fact) has far more bearing on the outcome than the ‘facts’ themselves.

As leaders, our challenge is to see everyone through the lens of ‘high-potential’, to enable greatness to become a self-fulfilling prophesy, rather than mediocrity.

Imagine the potential for change if you apply this new approach to your annual appraisals!

Let’s start something new!

Get in touch with us today and take the first steps to transforming your business.