Are you overlooking your consistently strong performers?

“The underdog winning is the romantic position” – Malcolm Gladwell

New research published in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making suggests that improved performance is likely to be interpreted more favourably than consistently strong performance.

This builds on previous research which showed those with average performance at appraisal time were evaluated more positively if their performance was shown to have improved over time. This also suggests that we tend to have a preference for potential and that this is easier to derive this from someone with improved performance over time.

The research


The researchers conducted five studies in the United States to see how people compared two types of performance – consistently strong performance versus performance that had improved over time.

STUDY ONE: 67 participants viewed profiles of two employees in a software company. Participants looked at performance graphs and then measured effort, traits and gave a future performance rating.

STUDY TWO: This replicated the same approach as study one, although with a different context. 64 participants viewed the profiles of two basketball players who aspired to be in the NBA.

STUDY THREE: 111 participants read either one of the profiles from study one. They subsequently selected the person, or not, for an employee award, giving reasons for their decision. Participants had to rate how difficult it was to come up with their reasons and how convincing their arguments were.

STUDY FOUR: 120 participants were given profiles on two sales people who had joined a company five years previously. Participants were given graphs showing each person’s performance and were asked to rate using the same measures as in study one. The control group was given no additional information. The test group were given additional information – namely that the average salesperson sold 250 units per year.

STUDY FIVE: 184 participants were assigned to one of four groups – (1) receiving additional information/reviewing consistent employee (2) receiving  additional information/reviewing improved employee (3) receiving no additional information/reviewing consistent employee (4) receiving no additional information/reviewing consistent employee. They reviewed the employee profiles from study four and the same measures were used as in the first study.

The findings


Studies one and two

Employees with improved performance were seen to be more deserving of promotion that the consistently performing employee. Improved performers were perceived as putting in more effort than consistent performers.

Study three

Whilst the same level of difficulty and convincing argument were given to improved performers and consistent performers, more participants mentioned effort when providing a supporting statement for the improved employee.

Study four

The improved employee was consistently found to be more deserving of promotion. In fact, in order for the consistent employee to be seen to be as deserving they needed to achieve a sales volume 1.57 times higher than that of their improved colleague.

Study five

When additional information was given, both sets of employees seen as equally deserving. Without additional information, the improved employee was thought to be harder working and putting in more effort.

Implications and solutions


This study shows the importance of having sufficient, good quality data and information when making important decisions about employees or candidates.

  1. For annual performance appraisals, managers should ensure that they have a sufficient mix of qualitative and quantitative data. In addition, having information on average performance across a team might help to mitigate against bias.
  2. Management training on performance management and recruitment should highlight studies such as this. This heightened awareness could be boosted by having fellow managers act as reviewers on samples of performance appraisals or job applications.
  3. Employees who are consistently strong performers might want to think about how they present performance information about themselves. For example, at performance appraisal sessions, the employee could provide examples where they’ve found something difficult, had to learn a new thing, or turned a situation around.
  4. Job applicants might want to provide a balance of examples showing where they’ve performed consistently well along with where they’ve struggled with something and subsequently, had to put in extra effort. This would need to be worded carefully. Showing what you learned from a situation can be one way to mitigate against any potential negative effects.

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