As we approach the middle of the reporting season, it’s time to complete interim Performance Appraisal Reports (PARs) and provide feedback to those under your command. During this time you’ll inform them of how well they are performing, but more importantly, how they can improve and develop. This short article provides some ‘food for thought’ before you complete appraisals. It will discuss the importance of timely and accurate reporting, the concept of unconscious bias, and explore the ‘mini-me’ effect. It should be used as a short primer to prepare yourself for writing the most accurate PAR feedback.

Accuracy and timeliness of feedback

By this point in the year you should have issued a number of monthly appraisals to guide your subordinates’ behaviour and track their performance. This should be continued between the interim and final PAR as it allows frequent touchpoints to track progress and update goals. Don’t just limit yourself to monthly feedback. For best results, feedback should be short and frequent. Continual feedback guides and leads performance. But balance this against an individual’s ability to absorb feedback and adapt or improve. While a high performer may crave frequent feedback, adopting the same approach with a low performer may have detrimental effects on their performance if they feel overwhelmed or targeted.

Ensure you provide your staff with regular positive reinforcement for good behaviour and constructive criticism for any shortcomings or required improvements. This allows them to immediately correct any deficiencies and provides them motivation to improve. Feedback should also provide them with an understanding of their potential and set out a path to achieve that potential through experience. Every leader has a responsibility to mentor and guide those around them as well as nurture a positive environment that fosters growth and improvement, even through failure.

Feedback must also be accurate. You must be careful not to over or under-report performance. Accurate reporting builds confidence in the chain of command and helps the career management process to be as fair as possible to all. It does require you to have tough discussions around how your subordinates can improve. This includes discussing their weaknesses, shortcomings and errors during the reporting period. Inaccurate reporting builds resentment in the organisation, creates disgruntled workers, and fails to properly develop people. Whilst it’s impossible to achieve perfect reporting fairness across an organisation, there are some things you should be aware of when compiling your reports.

Understanding bias

You have probably already heard the term unconscious bias, but what is it and how do we avoid it? Unconscious bias is a person’s unconscious preferences that are based off their experiences. Unconscious bias is widely studied; in particular due to its impact on the hiring process in the civilian world. For example: when interviewing for a job which is largely physical, recruiters may have an unconscious bias against the older, shorter, or heavier people in an interview. They may feel that the interviewees may not be physically fit enough to conduct the role. Such assertions must be quantified through physical testing, rather than the inherent bias in our own minds. There are a number of different biases that someone can have, and some can be built over time rather than on first impressions alone.

What is the mini-me effect?

The mini-me effect or mini-me syndrome is a social phenomenon related to unconscious bias whereby a leader or manager is more likely to report favourably on someone they closely relate to. Often this is due to being of a similar age, experience base, gender, or race. It should be noted that in the military context this can also occur when a leader sees a subordinate as ‘following in their footsteps’. For example: Major Y favouring Captain X because they want to be posted to Special Operations Command, and Major Y was posted there as a Captain. Another example would be Lieutenant Colonel W favouring his battalion Operations Officer because he was also a battalion Operations Officer as a Major.

The phenomenon shows how we relate to people in broader society. This is how we build friendships and social networks; so it’s not surprising that it happens in the workplace. But this form of bias can have far reaching consequences by impacting the diversity of the organisation and the diversity of thought. In a strong hierarchical organisation such as the military, it can also damage morale, discipline, and the broader organisation.

How to combat bias

Many organisations have invested significant resources in developing strategies to combat unconscious bias through bias training. Largely, the best and easiest way to limit your own bias is to be aware of what your biases are. You can do this by taking a Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT). This is a free tool that tests your biases about subjects such as gender, age, race, sexuality, weight, skin-tone and nationality. There are many other similar tests you can take. Taking a simple personality test such as the Big Five Personality Test will also help you to understand yourself and those around you. This in turn helps you to understand your biases. So, before you finalise your interim PARs this year, have a think about what your biases may be and actively seek to combat and overcome them. You’re sure to get better results from your team in doing so.