Have you ever felt like you were performing well at your job, but were unfairly looked down on by your boss for a mistake you made a long time ago? Do you ever find yourself judging someone too harshly or too positively based on one aspect of their personality, performance, or history duringperformance reviews?
If the answer is yes to either of these questions, then you have experienced the halo/horns effect. This phenomenon occurs when we form judgments about people based on a single event or characteristic of theirs instead of looking objectively at the person and their performance as a whole. It can severely distort our perception of them and cause us to treat them unfairly. If we are going to effectively manage our teams, we must learn to overcome such biases in the workplace.
It’s no secret that effectively managing people of all types and in all roles, whether they are making higher salaries or lower ones, or even whether they are experienced or newer, is one of the most challenging jobs in the workplace. And that’s because not only are we having to lead, direct, and evaluate other human beings, but we are also having to deal with our own emotions and preconceived notions of how we think things should and shouldn’t be. If we are going to manage others well, we must become aware of the biases we carry so we can effectively combat them for the sake of our teams and companies.
This article will cover what is halo/horns effect and how to avoid it when giving performance reviews. Also, we will discuss how to give accurate feedback to your employees.
What is the Halo Effect?
The phrase ‘halo effect’ was first coined by American psychologist, Edward Thorndike back in the 1920s. He observed that the more attractive a person was, the more they were likely to be perceived as capable and successful. Their positive attribute of physical appearance would overshadow any other negative attributes of character, integrity, or any number of things, leading people to still perceive that attractive person as smart and successful no matter what the reality was.
What is the Horns Effect?
The ‘horns effect’ is the other side of the coin to the halo effect and refers to a bias where we focus on one negative quality about a person and allow it to overshadow any positive qualities (even if the positive qualities are stronger). A commonly referenced example would be that an overweight person might receive more negative evaluations just because of their appearance, even if their positive qualities far outweigh the negative.
How Does the Halo/Horns Effect Happen in Performance Reviews?
The halo/horns effect is a type of bias that can occur in any relationship, but especially during performance reviews. The halo/horns effect occurs when a manager allows one positive or negative trait to ‘color’ their whole evaluation of an employee. In other words, the manager becomes either too lenient or too critical of the employee based on a single trait. This can lead to inaccurate and unfair performance reviews.
For instance, in company ABC, John is the marketing manager and is in charge of Sally who has been tasked with finding cheap email marketing software for their company. Sally forgot about it and consequently missed the deadline for finding the tool they needed, causing a major headache for John as he ended up doing it himself. Instead of coaching Sally and helping her get better so that it didn’t happen again, he wrote her off as a bad team member and stopped trying to help her grow. When it was time for the performance review, instead of taking into consideration the countless great things that Sally did over the last 6 months, all John could think about was that one mistake. So he gave her negative grades across the board in her performance review.
We can all see how unfair it is to treat someone like this. None of us would want to be treated this way for our mistakes. So, it is essential that we are aware of this cognitive bias, and take concrete steps to overcome it.
How Can We Avoid the Halo/Horns Effect in Performance Reviews?
Be aware of your biases
We all have them! If you know that you tend to be too lenient or too critical of a type of person, make a conscious effort to counterbalance that tendency in your performance reviews.
We can also be aware of our biases by being mindful of how we are feeling when we are rating someone’s performance. For example, suppose we are feeling angry or frustrated with a member of our marketing team because they failed to properly audit our website causing our Google rankings to suffer, or feeling annoyed at our salesman who messed up a big presentation a while back costing us a large client. In that case, we will likely be more critical in our rating.
By taking a step back and objectively evaluating the situation, we can make sure that our biases do not affect our judgment.
Treat them as an individual
Try to view each employee as an individual, rather than lumping them into categories.
For example, don’t think of all ‘millennials’ as lazy and entitled just because you read that somewhere on the internet — get to know your employees as individuals and treat them accordingly.
Similarly, don’t give all of your employees the same rating just because they are in the same department or have been with the company for the same amount of time. Each person has different strengths and weaknesses, and each deserves to be evaluated as an individual.
Use a performance review template
A performance review template can help you to ensure that you are evaluating each employee fairly. By using the same template for every performance review, you can avoid any potential biases that may come into play.
The critical thing to remember is that it’s still possible to let bias influence you as you fill out the templated review, however it serves as a guide to help keep you fair and unbiased. A good performance review template is an essential tool in the review process.
Focus on behaviors, not traits
Rather than saying ‘John is always late for his shifts,’ try, ‘I noticed that John has been coming in late for his shifts the last few Mondays.’ This helps to keep the review objective and focused on specific behaviors that can be changed.
The more that we can focus on the concrete examples of behavior we’d like to see changed, the better the employee will receive it. And the more we can show that we truly want to support them in their changes (instead of just bossing them around), the more likely they are to improve their behavior. Consider equipping them with some specialized third-party coaching, helpful decision-making tools to improve their processes or regular one-on-one time to accelerate their change. The more that we can come alongside them and support their change, the quicker we will see the results in them we’d like to see. Think of how you can support the employee, instead of focusing on the few things they are doing poorly and need to improve.
Use objective data when possible
If you’re struggling to remain objective, look at hard data such as sales numbers,PPC campaign performance, punctuality records, and other KPIs (key performance indicators) that your company tracks. This can help ground your performance review in reality and avoid undue bias. Taking a step back from the emotions of the situation and examining the data with an unbiased eye when evaluating our people objectively can make all the difference in the world.
This is whereperformance review software can really shine. It helps remove biases because when you are looking at the raw data, feelings or prejudices will not influence you.
If you’re struggling to get a well-rounded picture of an employee’s performance, seek input from their co-workers, direct reports, or even customers/clients if possible. Just make sure that you’re not taking this input at face value; use it as a starting point for further investigation rather than the cornerstone of your review process.
When in doubt, seek third-party insight and perspectives — in the counsel of many, there is wisdom.
The halo/horns effect is a type of bias that occurs all the time during performance reviews across the world. Most people don’t realize they are doing this until someone points it out to them, which is what this article does. If you have experienced adverse effects from the halo/horns effect, take some steps to rectify the situation and move forward in a fair, productive manner.
By following the tips above, you can avoid the halo/horns effect and ensure that your employees are getting accurate and fair performance reviews.
Srikant Chellappa is the Co-Founder and CEO at Engagedly and is a passionate entrepreneur and people leader. He is an author, producer/director of 6 feature films, a music album with his band Manchester Underground, and is the host of The People Strategy Leaders Podcast. He is currently working on his next book, Ikigai at the Workplace, which is slated for release in the fall of 2023.