Misunderstanding the “Halo Effect”

Aug 21, 1995

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m not the sentimental type. But I must say— I love the people who work here. I love them because they work so hard, they never complain, they try to do the right thing, and they do the best they can. What more can you ask? I can’t help but feel proud of them. Yet some “management expert, behavioral science-types”— if they heard me say this about my staff— would chide me, in their smug, self-important way: “That’s the halo effect, Mark; all managers think their people are better than the rest of the pack.” These same experts will go on to tell you: “That’s why performance appraisals, as an objective evaluation tool, are inherently flawed.” Or they’ll say, “That’s why you can’t go to the first-line supervisors to develop a layoff list when times are tough.” Or, “That’s why individual managers cannot be trusted to dole out the rewards properly— they aren’t thinking beyond their own little group.” Or finally, “So-and-so’s thinking is clouded because he has personal relationships with his employees.” I’m fed up with this so-called conventional wisdom. What I find most disturbing about it is that architects, engineers, and environmental consultants are particularly vulnerable to bad management advice. I know some of you out there believe there is no science to management, and that flying by the seat of your pants is the way to approach the whole subject. But certain others, who only have a technical background, will too often wrongly conclude that someone with a management education must know what he or she is talking about. These people know there is a fairly scientific body of knowledge on their own technical discipline area, so they assume that this same certainty exists in the field of management science. But believe me, as someone who has always been a promoter of the “science” of business— this certainty doesn’t exist in management! What’s the significance of this? Let’s first talk about performance appraisals. Performance appraisals can be a useful performance improvement and evaluation tool, if used properly. But in the typical firm, upper management doesn’t really trust managers to give accurate appraisals. The first problem is usually in the design of the appraisal process. There’s too much paper, too many scales, and not enough room for qualitative feedback. But the biggest problem, by far, is the lack of training that managers and employees get on the process. No one teaches either group how to confront the other on what’s bothering them. Supervisors don’t know how to deliver negative performance data without alienating the employee being appraised. Employees don’t know how to confront their supervisors on what the company is doing that bugs them. Too often, the result is an insubstantial appraisal that appears to overrate the employee. Management encourages this because they don’t value qualitative feedback— instead, they want numbers on a scale. Yet, qualitative feedback is where the real value is. Most folks will forget how they scored on a scale within 24 hours of seeing it. But they don’t forget specific statements made about them so easily. Layoff lists are another area where front-line supervisors too often aren’t trusted to be objective. That’s why top management, in its infinite wisdom, likes to decide who stays and who goes, often with nothing more than a utilization rate report and some subjective impressions or vague recollections of the employee. But I find that any manager, if pressed, can come up with a list of who stays and who goes. They know, better than anyone else, who is doing a good job and who isn’t. Sure, cutting staff may not be their first idea. But can you blame them? Look at how hard it is to find people, and how long it takes to get someone acclimated to the typical A/E/P or environmental firm. No sane person wants to waste any more time than he or she has to in that process. Setting salaries and pay rates is something companies better trust their managers with. Many firms in this business are stuck in the past— they think that only principals should decide who makes how much. Therefore, they sit down at a big table and decide salaries every year with some crazy justification that that’s the only way they can make sure there is parity across all offices throughout the company. Hogwash! The real reason is that companies don’t budget for pay increases and don’t trust their managers to dole out this budget. Top management should control whether or not a manager can exceed his or her budget. But supervisory managers have to have the power to grant (or not grant) rewards to their people— otherwise, why should the employees listen to them? And these managers aren’t stupid. If they have a limited pot of rewards, they’ll use it where it makes the best sense. They can’t just give all of their folks a big fat raise if they don’t have that much money to go around. And again— training is necessary to make it all work. Last but not least, personal relationships are something you ought to encourage your managers to have with their people. Sure, taken too far in the form of a love or sexual relationship, you could end up with a disaster. But fear of employee harassment lawsuits is keeping too many managers from doing things they should be doing to really get to know their people and find out what makes them tick. It’s commonly accepted that people who are comfortable in a personal relationship with someone will be less guarded, more open, and more inclined to confront that person when something is bothering them. All these things are important to a healthy working relationship, too. If managers really understand what is motivating their employees, what turns them off, what their aspirations are, and how insightful they are, don’t you think that there will be a better employment relationship for all concerned? You bet there will be. That’s why you need to be friends with your employees. The bottom line is that the “halo effect” is too often a convenient dumping ground for principal-level management to justify why it shouldn’t trust the judgement of the next level down. What top management really needs to do is stop looking over the shoulders of front-line supervisors and to find better ways to do things. That means re-thinking current systems and processes for evaluating staff, for deciding who stays and who goes, and for doling out the rewards. It means more training for managers and employees alike. And finally, it means encouraging personal relationships between managers and their staffs. Originally published 8/21/1995

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