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What plants and lottery tickets teach us about rating calibration


Rating calibration is important for performance management, but HR professionals should be aware that it can undermine the human need for control.

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 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; that’s how we’re wired. 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.”

One of the more notable – and tragic – experiments in this area involved pot plants. Researchers gave residents of an aged 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 per cent of the second group of participants had died, compared to only 15 per cent 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, and even illogical, examples of the human need for control. For example, people feel more certain they will win the lottery if they can control the numbers chosen, and in those circumstances are more likely to bet more money. Another study showed that you will feel more confident of winning a dice toss if you are the one throwing the dice.

So having a sense of control over your actions matters a lot, and there are consequences to losing that control. 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

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. And 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. It’s common to hear of managers failing to take ownership of ratings that change post-calibration, and there are lots of stories of managers handing down calibrated ratings with the caveat: “if it were up to me, I would have said you exceeded expectations.”

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 neurological standpoint.

How not 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: This is a bad idea. Rater bias is a well-established phenomenon. Relying on one individual’s opinion generates inconsistent and subjective results.
  2. Remove performance ratings: Some form of differentiation between employees is needed (whether or not you share the rating with the employee).
  3. Remove manager responsibility for rating: Doing this would fundamentally change the role of the manager and their relationship with employees.

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: The first step is to recognise – and educate business stakeholders – that the loss of control inherent in calibration is an issue that requires a sensible and considered response.
  2. Educate others: Explain to all stakeholders the reasons why calibration is used, and don’t be afraid to share the science around control.
  3. Be as transparent as possible: Give feedback to managers and employees on your changes. This provides confidence in the process, and creates a strong incentive for those involved to up their game. You could even consider having observers – peers from other business units or even union or employee representatives – in the calibration sessions.
  4. Get feedback: Use surveys and interviews to check if managers and employees understand the calibration process, and what they think of it. This will help you refine the process and give stakeholders a sense of control.

Murray Priestman is the founder and principal of Priestman Associates. He was previously global head of talent for Macquarie Group, and worked as a management consultant with KPMG in Europe and Australia.


Gain an overview of the performance appraisal process and get practical tips with the AHRI short course ‘Performance management’.

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Tasman McManis
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Tasman McManis

If you include the managers in the calibration process it helps to reduce the likelihood that the manager will feel that they have lost control of the process. Where managers are not involved in the calibration process they can also claim to their employees that it is “not their fault” when a rating is changed. This is especially likely to be the case where a rating is lowered from the original rating.

Iain
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Iain

I’ve also found that holding a pre-calibration meeting with managers i.e. before the manager/ subordinate performance discussion helps the manager understand how their team member’s performance is perceived by others and allows them to address any significant perceptual inaccuracies other managers may have. The manager then enters the performance discussion with additional feedback on critical performance events and the formal calibration meeting records a reduced number of rating changes.

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