We’re all familiar with the phrase “seeing is believing.” Witnessing an unusual or unexpected event increases your ability to regard it as valid. But is the opposite also true? Do we tend to see what we believe? Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, has noted that his overwhelming conclusion about people’s decision-making challenges is that they tend to seek only for information that confirms what they originally believed.
Over the last several months my colleague Jack Zenger and I have been working with a multinational company to assess and coach their top three levels of management. As we completed individual coaching sessions it was apparent that some managers had a positive bias and others had a negative bias in their ratings of employees.
To understand this better we looked at a larger dataset of 360 data. In a recent Harvard Business review article we shared a study where we identified 50 positive and 31 negative rating managers. These managers rated their direct reports significantly more or less positively than the rest of their colleagues. The graph below shows the 5-point rating scale for this 360 degree feedback instrument and the percentage of time each group of managers used each point on the scale.
These ratings represent the following scores:
- Needs significant improvement—Poor performance
- Needs some improvement—Inconsistent performance
- Competent—Good performance
- Strength—Top quartile
- Outstanding strength—Top 10%
Note that only 18.4% of the positive managers’ ratings were “Competent” compared to 51.4% for the negative managers.
The Impact of a Positive or Negative Rating Manager
What is the impact when managers inherently rate more positively or negatively? Is the rating an objective and accurate analysis of a subordinate’s performance, or does the rating itself influence the subordinate’s performance?
Anyone who would have joined me in the discussions with the subordinates of the “high” and “low” rating managers would have instantly seen the impact. Those people who had higher, more positive ratings felt lifted up and supported. The vote of confidence from their managers gave them optimism about additional improvement.
But the subordinates who had a negative-rating manager were confused or discouraged, and often both. They felt it was impossible to succeed. They often heard the message as “you are not valued or trusted.” What effect did that have?
We measured employee engagement data for the direct reports of positive and negative rating managers. Direct reports who worked for negative rating managers had engagement scores at the 47th percentile. Those reporting to positive rating managers had engagement scores at the 60th percentile. This difference is statistically significant.
We acknowledge that that negative rating managers may select less engaged employees, but the far more likely explanation is that the engagement levels of these employees was roughly the same, but the diverse day to day interactions capped by very divergent performance reviews had a big impact on engagement levels.
Possible Motives of Positive or Negative Rating Managers
Negative raters would typically say something like, “I want my people to get the message that I have high expectations.” The positive rating manager’s motive and message was quite different. They too had high expectations, but the message they desired to send was that they had confidence in their people. They believed that they had selected the greatest people for those jobs and they expected them to succeed.
Impact of Manager Expectations
Did those expectations change the behavior of the subordinates of these high and low rating managers?
Having spoken with hundreds of leaders whose bosses thought they were awesome, we know the impact is real. It is our hope these findings can have a positive impact on the ratings—and the messages—leaders are sending to their current and future employees. Your ability to build their engagement is much higher than you may have believed.