The Halo Effect: Judging Angels and Devils

halo effect

Image by Joseph Robertson via Flickr

As managers, one of the most important things we do is assess our employees.  We provide them with feedback on their performance, in order to help them learn, and become more effective employees. 

The problem with manager feedback, is like any form of feedback, we can experience bias in the system.  One commonly known feedback bias is known as the “halo” effect.  That is where on particular trait, whether positive or negative, overwhelms the assessment of other traits. Thus it creates a halo, that biases a manager’s overall judgement of the individual.  For example, a particularly charismatic individual might be assessed very positively, in spite of their chronic lateness, or their inability to analyze data well, because the manager likes the employee’s charm.  Or a manager may have a highly negative halo about an employee, which swamps any positive attributes the employee may have.

The other day, I was grading major assignments. I got to the end of the pile, and started to read the assignment of a student that I know pretty well, having taught her in the past. Generally, she is a strong but not necessarily stellar student.  In my mind, she was slightly above the pack. Then I read her paper. Did she ever do a great job – I gave her a 90, which is unusual for me.  My next thought? Did she have anyone help her write this? Which is consistent with the “halo” bias that I carry about her, that she is above average, but not on the level of a 90.

I’ve experienced this same impact with students who are very talkative in class and very engaged with the material.  So I expected them to do very well on assignments.  But when I got the assignments, I was sorely disappointed. They didn’t do well at all.

So how did I avoid the halo effect when grading these assignments?  Teaching very small classes of 20 – 30 students means that I will get to know the students and develop expectations or “halos” about them. So I try to develop rigorous grading guidelines that are very specific about the concepts that I’m looking for in an excellent paper. That takes some of the “judgement” out of the process.  If the ideas aren’t there, they just aren’t there.

And that is how many sophisticated companies are approaching performance appraisals and feedback today.  They are developing very specific, rigorous metrics about behaviour and performance to reduce managerial bias.  Additionally, research suggests that merely being aware of our biases may reduce the effect that they have on assessment.

Think about your biases, then next time you’re asked to assess someone’s performance.  What can you do to ensure a fair and even-handed assessment?


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