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We are Not Looking at Employee Performance Correctly

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Everything has its mean. Your happiness, relationship intensity, love, school grades, training or L&D intervention impact, and performance.

Regression to the mean is a common statistical phenomenon that can mislead us when we observe the world or employee performance. Learning to recognise when regression to the mean is at play can help us avoid misinterpreting data and seeing patterns that don’t exist.

Regression Toward the Mean (AKA Return to Average/Normal). Our performance always varies around some average true performance and this is what we should be looking to evaluate during conversations around performance. This is what we should establish rather than the highs and lows because they are just contributing to our true performance.

Let's have a look at an example:

As the manager, you witnessed your employee's outstanding performance today and promptly express your appreciation. However, the following day, their performance took a downturn. Sensing the "need" for intervention, you have a conversation with the individual, providing feedback on their subpar performance. The following day or week the employee's performance shows improvement.

You are confused and wonder whether or not you should stop praising them because each time you do they always do worse the following day or week.

You also think that feedback works because they do better each time you talk to them.

And this is the feedback fallacy that we have fallen for. Feedback does absolutely nothing to performance and it is very likely that the person's performance' mean is in action.

Performance has peaks and valleys and whether or not you praise or criticise it, it will fluctuate. The only problem is that we cannot really establish or accurately measure someone's mean performance so we remember and evaluate them on their highs and lows. Those are memorable to us and easy to spot.

Managers will remember the day when we made the highest or lowest revenue but if you ask them what is the average or mean for the month they will have no clue.

The same applies when you train employees. They might perform immediately better right after the training but they will also perform even worse than before the training in the future. This is when you as a manager lose your mind and say, "I have trained you and you demonstrated that you can do it! What is the matter with you?"

Nothing is the matter with them. It is the regression to the mean at play. Poor performance only becomes a problem when it is frequent. So if your staff is not performing today but has been doing the job well in the past three weeks don't bother. AND don't start with the silly feedback conversation. We hate that. We are doing good in general but not good today. We don't need to have feedback or a conversation. We are going to bounce back just watch.

And as for the highs, cherish them when they happen but do not set that as the benchmark for future performance because you will be setting the person up for failure.

Try and draw a graph for your employees and you will see that the regression to the mean is real. I always tried to establish the mean performance of my staff and evaluate them accordingly. I have acknowledged peak performance and on days when they were at their lows I just said "One of those days hey?". I knew that they will be better tomorrow.

This is how we should be looking at performance at work.

Individual performance can be managed by the individual through self-awareness linked to Strengths.

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