Somewhere between the 1890s and early 1900s, while India was busy trying to figure a way out of British domination, a few thousand miles away behind the iron curtain, Ivan Pavlov was busy studying salivation in dogs.
Little did Pavlov, who would go on to become Russia’s first Nobel laureate, realize that the findings of his experiment would eventually indirectly become the bane of most corporate professionals in today’s free India. He noticed that whenever he would enter the room to feed his dogs, they would start salivating. He then decided to accompany the food-serving with a bell that he rang. Gradually, the dogs got accustomed to the ringing bell accompanied with food and started associating their food with the ringing of the bell. Until after a few days, he would only ring the bell without bringing any food. This would again make them salivate. The phenomenon came to be known as Pavlovian conditioning or physiological conditioning.
With takeaways as food for thought from the experiment, let’s visualize a typical performance rating process in the current corporate scenario. It is not uncommon for recently hired employees to be given a default average rating irrespective of their performance. In their eagerness to follow the bell-curve (and also appease their seasoned and tenured team-members), most managers tend to let their new recruits take the hit of an average/just about below average rating. The general line of thought to justify this unconcious bias is “She just joined a few months ago. How can I give her a good-rating over my tenured team-members who have been with me for so long?”
By choosing to completely discount the performance of the employee, we have allowed ourselves to succumb to this ‘Pavlovian conditioning’ behavior. Not only does it result in poor employee experience, it also erodes employees’ morale, which could eventually snowball into a catastrophe on the employer branding front – by the loss of faith in the entire performance management system. While these may seem inconsequential when pitted against larger business problems and people consequences like losing talent, one needs to ask the question as to whether they don’t demand equal attention if not more.
The ‘Santa Claus’ syndrome is another phenomenon that we as Managers are typically hard-wired to exhibit. A top-performer, while being rightfully awarded a promotion for her efforts, usually ends up getting the rough end of the stick on the performance rating front, while another top-performer gets a top-rating while being denied a promotion. Taking this easy way out of staying in the good books of everyone around may make us popular, but we will always be devoid of the respect that great Managers command.
Effect of pre-determined assessment paths
“It’s time to rethink our approach, move away from conditioned behaviors to unconditional contributions.”
While it’s easier said than done, the least we, as Managers can do is to make an attempt at moving away from this ‘Pavlovian conditioning’. More often than not, we habitually straitjacket employees into performance categories given the “Bell Curve Mandate” and our poor judgment around the fact that such trade-offs between promotions and ratings will eventually be accepted by our teams. Do they really have a choice and even if they end up escalating the issue, wouldn’t it be self-limiting?
While HR in isolation isn’t the custodian of the performance management system, independence exhibited by HR professionals is truly appreciated by seasoned business leaders. Of course, one has to maintain a healthy profit and loss account (everyone can’t be a top performer and some executive calls need to be taken), but is it worth it at the cost of discounting substantial efforts of those who have gone the extra mile by filling up for the inefficiencies of others?
Since we are talking about altering a mindset that has been cemented over many years, this will not be easy. But gradual change can be brought about with conscious effort. “It’s time to rethink our approach, move away from conditioned behaviors to unconditional contributions.” As clichéd as it may sound, Rome was not built in a day and neither will a respected and matured HR function be.
These views expressed in this article are the author’s own and don’t reflect that of the organization.