THE HALO EFFECT & THE PROBLEM WITH PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT
Updated: Jun 25, 2022
Part 1 of a series on performance management for education leaders.
To set the stage for this series of blogs on performance management, I’m introducing the concept of the Halo Effect in this opening essay. As I explained in my blog series on decision-making, the use of poor information compromises processes and impacts outcomes. I will argue throughout this latest series of essays, that in the world of education administration we have not been expert in the field of performance management. The result is the failure to have institutionalized a comprehensive and continuous system. Instead, we annually host an event. The consequence is that the human tendency to attribute characteristics based on perception or bias creeps into the system and corrupts it. As such, performance management adds little value to organizational performance.
As my team and I set out to develop a proprietary model for our school district, we do so on the premise that performance management functions as an effective communication tool.
As noted academic and practitioner, Hans de Bruijn asserts, “Performance measurement is a very powerful communication tool: it reduces the complex performance of a professional organization to its essence. It therefore makes it possible to detect poor performance, allowing an organization to be corrected if it performs poorly. If a professional organization performs well, performance measurement might play an important role in making this transparent and in acquiring legitimacy.”
We plan to set the standard for performance management in the PK-12 institution. Our aim is squarely targeted on developing talent profiles for our administrators. The process includes comprehensive appraisals collaboratively designed to measure and develop competencies. It includes goal management, 360 peer reviews, and development planning. By developing our leaders through an unambiguous and reflective process, I expect the trickle-down effect of putting the system into our Performance Management System to mitigate the consequences of the halo effect and other rating errors, bringing value to the evaluates and the organization.
We’re starting with some basic assumptions: First, leaders/managers (and all employees for that matter) at all levels simply want performance management to be fair and consistent.
They want to know that despite systematic biases that exist in all human endeavors, their organization has a thoughtful system that guards against it and engenders trust. Successful organizations that have built that level of trust have done so by transforming performance management from an annual sanctioned event to a comprehensive and continuous process.
Second, there are seven elements germane to most performance evaluation models: setting performance expectations, observing performance, integrating performance information, rendering a formal summative evaluation, generating and delivering performance feedback, a formal performance review meeting, and performance coaching. In the best of cases, it’s a cyclical process. Instead of a beginning and an end, it is continuous as each phase in the process informs the next. In the worst of cases, it’s reduced to an event marked by loose couplings. In both cases, it has proven to be ineffective as an agent of organizational improvement for reasons related to methodology, among others.
Last, most performance management systems are flawed due to poor instrumentation, systematic bias, or unsophisticated measurement methods.
In many school districts, performance appraisals are deficit-based and are used either to reward favored employees (halo effect) or as blunt instruments to punish disfavored employees (horn effect).
Neither the process nor the product would stand up to professional peer review. The Halo Effect was coined by Edward L. Thorndike, the American psychologist who said, “The magnitude of the constant error of the halo, as we have called it, also seems surprisingly large, though we lack objective criteria by which to determine its exact size. As a consequence science seems to demand that, in all work on ratings for qualities the observer should report the evidence, not a rating, and the rating should be given on the evidence to each quality separately without knowledge of the evidence concerning any other quality in the same individual." To dig deeper, read A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.
Performance management is an afterthought in many school districts. If there is a system, it's not well developed. In most cases, it's still an event practically brushed off by both the evaluate and the evaluatee. Understanding why this is a reality provides the context for the work.
Among the reasons, it has not been viewed as a mechanism for systemic change. That seemingly defies logic and flies in the face of intuition. Or does it? Over the course of this series I will discuss some of the more complex reasons why it's avoided.
Just like people who smoke, eat poorly, and otherwise live recklessly avoid seeing the doctor. It's just another variation of avoidance behavior.
I'll advance this concept in part two.