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Why introverts could be distorting peer review systems


I’ve written a number of times on this blog about the rise of social appraisal systems in the workplace.  Whether it’s the peer review systems of companies such as Work.com or the rise in so called prosocial bonuses whereby your bonus is distributed amongst deserving peers, there is a groundswell of support for appraisal systems to be distributed amongst employees rather than remaining a top down process as is so often the case currently.

These kind of systems are designed to be both more democratic, but also more effective, in that you’re gaining the input of lots of people rather than the one or two that often dominate traditional appraisals.  What if the crowds aren’t quite as wise as we think however?

The introversion bias

Since the publication of Quiet by Susan Cain a few years ago, it seems the understanding of introverted individuals has undergone something of a transformation.  It’s no longer seen as a kind of disease but a perfectly valid thing for someone to be.

Alongside this shift in thinking has been the publication of a number of studies looking at how introverts behave in the workplace.  The latest looks at how introverts behave during performance appraisals, and particularly when it comes to appraising their extroverted peers.

It suggests that if a workplace has a peer review system in place, then extroverted employees better watch out, as their introverted peers are unlikely to rate them very highly.

The study found that extroverted employees were regularly rated as amongst the worst performers by their introverted colleagues.  What’s more, they were also found to be less likely to give them any credit for the work they did, nor recommend them for promotion.

“The magnitude with which introverts underrated performance of extroverts was surprising,” the researchers say. “The results were very consistent across both studies.”

The role of personality at work

The research provides a telling glimpse into the crucial role our personalities play at work.  There is a growing role for peer review in the performance appraisal process, and this offers a stark warning that our reviews may not be as unbiased as we’d like to think.  This is especially so in organisations that deploy things like prosocial bonuses, where ones bonus is shared amongst deserving colleagues.

“That gives employees a tremendous amount of power to influence their peers’ career opportunities,” the researchers say. “It’s something individuals and employers should be aware of.”

Whilst there is a reasonable canon of research exploring how our personalities might impact our own work, this is one of the first studies to explore how our personality affects our perceptions of other peoples performances.

About the study

Participants in the study were assigned to a project team consisting of a handful of peers.  At the end of each project, participants were then asked to assess their team mates via a questionnaire about each of them.  The survey also covered things such as the workings of the team collectively, and themselves as individuals.

This initial experiment revealed that the introverted team members were rating the performances of their fellow introverts much higher than they were the extroverts on their team.  Interestingly, the extroverts on the team showed no such bias.

A second study asked participants to play a short online game that lasted for around ten minutes alongside three colleagues.  Unknown to the participants however, the colleagues were actually artificial intelligence, albeit that they were manipulated to appear either introverted or extroverted (with their performance unchanged each time).

At the end of each game, participants were asked to assess the performance of their team mates and make some recommendations on whether they should be promoted or awarded a bonus for their performances.

Once again, it emerged that introverted employees were scoring their extroverted peers more harshly, awarding them smaller bonuses and not recommending them for promotion.  Just as with the first experiment, it emerged that extroverted participants were not effected in the same way.

“We found that introverted employees are especially sensitive to their co-workers’ interpersonal traits, in particular extraversion and disagreeableness,” the researchers say. “They make judgments and evaluate performance of others with those traits in mind.”

What can be done?

The researchers suggest that the onus is on extroverted employees to deploy a kind of ‘dimmer switch’ when they’re working with their more introverted peers so that they don’t overwhelm them.  They also suggest that managers need to take account of the personalities of their employees when assessing the evaluations given via peer review processes.

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