Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 156
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Improving Memory

A new mental exercise improves memory and displays benefits for managers and employees.

There's a moment when you're getting started on a performance appraisal form when you sense imminent defeat, and as the moment lingers, the urge to put it aside and do something else becomes very strong.

The problem is familiar: your comments and your ratings will be based on a flawed memory -- you just can't remember enough to satisfy the demands of the performance appraisal form. And a flawed memory leaves you vulnerable, because the person you're rating suffers no such memory impairment. If your ratings are to reflect your true impressions of performance, then you'll need clear memories that just aren't there. In defeat, you assign inflated ratings and avoid trouble. Unfortunately, employees recognize the tactic and learn to dismiss your performance reviews as irrelevant, and alert personnel specialists also notice, and ask how you're going to justify disciplinary action against employees you've rated highly.

Ah, the bitter taste of defeat -- no way to win at all.

Angelo DeNisi, of Rutgers University, likens your situation to that of a craftsman who begins a project without assembling any tools, just the boards that are to be shaped into a clock, or the lawn mower that needs repair. To begin a task without assembling any tools is to work at a significant disadvantage, so it's no surprise that performance appraisal is unpopular.

Now, you might question this observation as it relates to performance appraisal because of your company's form that you hold in your hands. Your personnel people insist this is a tool, but it's a tool that only organizes the rating categories you will use. It fails to refresh or organize your memory about the person you're evaluating.

Professor DeNisi studies memory at Rutgers, and in 1989 he developed an exercise for managers to help them recall and organize performance information in their minds. He initially tested it on students, and he was encouraged by the results, so he repeated the experiment in 1994 with 230 managers and supervisors from a large electronics company. They followed his instructions and used the exercise to help them organize their memories and rate their employees. He was delighted to find positive results in this setting, too.

Managers using DeNisi's memory exercise felt more confident with the ratings they assigned, and they believed their ratings were fair and accurate. They remembered more critical incidents of performance, both positive and negative. Their overall ratings were lower, and their ratings demonstrated a larger range from highest to lowest for individuals across the form's performance categories.

After using the exercise, managers' attitudes about performance appraisal improved. Employees received clearer information about their strengths and weaknesses that were illustrated by examples of performance that were fresh in both their memories and in those of their managers. And the company received documentation that more accurately classified their employees. For the company and the people, these were very positive outcomes.

DeNisi's mental exercise organizes managers' memories before they begin assigning performance ratings -- it helps you assemble your mental tools. And if you want to try it, give yourself 10-15 minutes before beginning the task, and notice the performance categories on your appraisal form. Then recall as many descriptive incidents as possible about the person's recent performance, and write them down. These statements should include both positive and negative examples, and they should be descriptive rather than evaluative. Think of them as critical incidents that describe categories of performance. The more you write down, the more you'll remember. Stop after 15 minutes.

This exercise will freshen your memory and organize your thoughts. Your performance reviews will become memory based rather than impression based. And if you adopt it as a regular practice, it's likely you'll experience the same benefits that DeNisi observed.

Reference: DeNisi, Angelo S., and Lawrence H. Peters (1996). Organization of Information in Memory and the Performance Appraisal Process: Evidence from the Field. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81 (6), 717-737.

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