Avoid feedback mind traps

To give better ratings, check your blind spots.

It’s not easy to truly evaluate someone’s performance, especially in this age of hyperconnected and decentralized work. When work is happening under many roofs, not one, how can we accurately assign ratings? Who gets credit for the product or prototype that emerges from cross-functional collaboration? And with so many companies modifying their performance management practices (and even dropping them altogether), assigning ratings to work has become a head-scratching experience.

But what if the biggest barrier to giving a meaningful measure of work…is the person giving the rating?

Whenever we talk about someone’s performance and potential, we inadvertently stumble into feedback “mind traps.” These are the subtle and subversive beliefs we carry with us anytime we make judgements of others. Needless to say, there are multiple factors that can cloud our perception and judgement. (Sometimes, it might just come down to us being hungry.) But in my work and experience, I’ve found three mind traps to be especially persistent — and problematic.

Common feedback mind traps:

  • The recency trap: Better known as recency effect, this describes the tendency to give weight and priority to what’s happening right now. With recency, we look only at one part of an employee’s story (the most recent chapter) to the exclusion of the larger narrative. This bias, which arises from our inability to recall distant moments or memories, can be especially damaging to anyone who has endured a recent struggle or setback.
  • The spillover trap: On the opposite end is spillover, the unfair and usually unfounded assumption that past experiences drive current behaviors. This backwards-facing trap locks us into a pessimistic view of others, discounts the possibility of change, and takes a fixed view of who people are, not who they are right now. 
  • The halo trap: Like its angelic name suggests, halo effect is the tendency to judge others more favorably based on the positive impressions we hold of them — leading to preferential treatment, better opportunities, and higher approval of the work they do. 

When discussing performance, we can’t avoid these mind traps altogether. But there are steps we can take to ensure that our feedback is more accurate and actionable.

Adopt a learning mindset.

Instead of presuming to know everything about another person, turn feedback into a partnership. Combining humility with curiosity can bring new insights and stronger relationships. By approaching others with a desire to learn and understand, we can release ourselves from the cognitive grip that often influences our view of them.

Acknowledge your gaps.

Being open with others about your cognitive biases can disarm and defuse a potentially heated conversation. It also telegraphs to others that you’re aware of your own limitations. This can close the perspective gap that often causes us to underestimate the effects of something we haven’t experienced ourselves.

Try countering this bias by setting your intentions up front. For example, you might open a conversation with the following: I recall a time when you took a different approach to this issue and it produced a positive result. What happened here? Taking others inside your thinking can serve as a powerful trust builder that shifts the tone of feedback from blame to inquiry.

Widen the loop. 

If you can’t trust your assessment of others, ask others to assess themselves. Every few weeks, or at the end of a project, invite your team to write their own evaluations. Some of my clients find this simple matrix helpful: Draw two columns, one marked Do Over and the other marked Do Again. In the “do over” column, ask people to make a list of mistakes and missteps they’d like to take back. In the “do again” column, encourage people to record the things that went well and deserve future consideration.

The exercise encourages both retrospective and prospective thinking. Employees find the exercise refreshing, since it gives them opportunities to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. And managers are often surprised by the insights and information it generates, providing a broader context for feedback and evaluation.

In a perfect world, we’d always give honest, actionable feedback before assigning ratings. While we can’t solve the complexities of human nature, we can gain a clearer picture of performance by looking beyond our limiting beliefs and avoiding the mind traps that hold us back. If we can do that, we might just see someone’s performance in an entirely new way.

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