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Going Up? Slight Difference in Evaluation Systems Could Sway Promotions

Going Up? Slight Difference in Evaluation Systems Could Sway Promotions
Even a minor tweak in the evaluation process can influence which type of employee a manager promotes, says a new study co-authored by Nebraska’s Todd Thornock.

Welcome to Pocket Science: a glimpse at recent research from Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What,” “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.

Managing a team means evaluating the performance of its members. Evaluation becomes even more critical when a promotion is on the line — especially when deciding between a higher-performing member and a lower-performing one who may nevertheless be better suited for the promotion.

That dilemma can be further complicated by the system used to evaluate team members. Managers often rely on either a holistic system, in which they assign only an overall performance score, or a disaggregated system, assigning both an overall score and separate ratings for the underlying metrics.

Todd Thornock
Todd Thornock

So what?
Nebraska’s Todd Thornock, associate professor of accountancy, and UT-Austin’s Eric Chan examined whether the evaluation system might influence the evaluation itself, particularly when managers face that common promotion dilemma. The duo ran an experiment in which 120 MBA students assumed the role of a store manager tasked with evaluating two candidates for a promotion to assistant manager: one the better salesperson, the other with higher managerial potential.

As Thornock and Chan predicted, the MBA students inflated the overall performance score of the candidate better suited for the promotion — but only when managers used the holistic system and knew a promotion was looming. The students subsequently promoted that candidate 73% of the time, compared with 57% when using the disaggregated evaluation.

Follow-up analyses suggested that managers inflated the overall score partly to justify the future promotion of the “less qualified” candidate. That inflation failed to emerge under the disaggregated system because of its greater transparency, the researchers theorized, and because dividing cognitive tasks into parts generally curbs subjectivity.

Now what?
Organizations should consider their values and culture when choosing an evaluation system, the researchers suggested. Those looking to empower managers might prefer a holistic system, whereas those lacking trust in their managers, or looking to combat real or perceived biases, might favor a disaggregated system.

Published: March 23, 2022