How to Promote a Team Member for the Right Reasons

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As a team grows, it becomes difficult to gauge the performance of each individual team member because managers don’t have as much personal contact. This leaves managers susceptible to biases that can drive away some of their best talent. To build a team based on performance, not bias, you need an evaluation system that gives you as many accurate data points as possible for a more equitable way to promote team members.

Attracting top talent to your business is a challenge, and finding ways to keep them should also be a priority. As a company grows, it can be hard to provide the day-to-day recognition that lets your most productive team members know that you appreciate their contributions. Too often, busy managers have to rely on quick impressions of team members’ performance, leading to an incomplete perspective when it comes to determining who should get promotions. Here are ways that you can recognize the biases that might make you overlook great talent in a growing team — and build a data-driven system that helps you reward top performers.

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The Blindspots of Recognition

Busy managers often don’t have the time or the tools to do in-depth analysis on each employee’s contributions, so they rely on their gut instincts instead. Sometimes this works out perfectly, but when it doesn’t, there’s usually an unidentified bias at play. There are three main cognitive biases that tend to creep into decisions about who to promote and when:

  • The relativity trap–Comparing employees to their peers, which may undervalue exceptional people in a high-powered team, or overvalue average workers in a lower-performing team.

  • Observational selection bias–Making presumptions about a team member’s overall performance based on small (and inaccurate) glimpses of their work.

  • Diversity bias–Thinking highly of someone who is similar to you in any way, such as gender, race, or even shared hobbies.  

There’s no way to eliminate biases when deciding who gets a promotionit’s how humans are wired. But you can create systems that help identify bias and balance it with accurate data points.

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Here’s how to promote team members for the right reasons.

Avoid the Relativity Trap with Promotion Criteria

For years, retailers have used the relativity trap to try to steer consumers toward a purchase that is more advantageous for their bottom line. By selectively comparing one item’s price or value with others, you can convince people that it’s a standout. We’re prone to this same bias when we evaluate our employees. Top performers might go unnoticed when they’re grouped with other high achievers, and below-average employees might look great only because their co-worker produces substandard results.

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If you consistently fall into the relativity trap, not only can you lose great employees, but you’ll end up lowering your standards for your team. The overall quality of work will decrease, and even star performers won’t give the job their all because it’s no longer expected. To combat this bias, create objective promotion criteria that you can apply to each role.

Step 1: Know What You’re Evaluating For

Molly Graham is known for transforming how Facebook evaluated and promoted employees. She joined the team when it had 400 members and created a system that’s still in place at the 17,000-person empire. One of her key pieces of advice is this: “On the spectrum between formulaic and discretionary compensation, be as formulaic as you can.” She created a formula for the roles, the corresponding salary, and the dimensions along which employees should be evaluated for promotion. These formulas, set in stone, can’t be negotiated and ensure fair evaluation and mobility within the organization. Here’s an example of clear promotion criteria for a content marketing manager:

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* 1=poor, 2=competent, 3=exceptional If you’re creating this for a new role, you can review job listings as a starting place to gauge other companies’ expectations for the performance of new employees. Gather feedback from your team to ensure that your criteria is fair and accurately encompasses everything that the role demands.

Avoid Observational Selection with More Data

Learning and processing new information uses a lot of energy, so our brains are always looking for patterns or shortcuts to conserve time and process valuable information. This leads to observational selection, where we create a strong impression from a quick observation. For example, if you walk by Steve’s office every day at 6 pm and find him at his computer, you may assume that he’s a dedicated worker and treat him as such. But if a simple check-in with his team members might reveal that he frequently comes in late or doesn’t offer constructive input, then you need to revise your assumptions. You can get a complete picture by collecting feedback from the people who interact with each teammate the most: their peers.

Step 2: Gather Peer Feedback

Google, named as the #1 place to work 6 years in a row, takes an unconventional approach to performance reviews. Rather than get managers to assess team members, they ask team members to offer feedback about their peers. This is effective because peers have significantly more context than managers–they know the daily problems they run into, the amount of work on their plate, and even more personal factors that could be affecting their performance. To help your team members give simple, anonymous assessments that offer specific details about their day-to-day work with their peers, use tools like SurveyMonkey that collects feedback quarterly. often uses Google Forms for these types of surveys. Before you launch the survey, make sure everyone understands the evaluation criteria, and have peers answer questions about one another based on that criteria. Using the same example as above, you can formulate the survey like this:

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After each rating, make sure to ask peers to give a qualitative assessment, so you can understand the reason for their assessment.

Avoid Diversity Bias Through Feedback Exchanges

Amongst your friends, you might have noticed some interesting dating patterns. One friend might always date people with blue eyes–similar to her own. Another friend with ringlets might always express interest in people who happen to have curly hair. Studies have shown that we have a predilection for people who remind us of ourselves. Gut instincts like these come through in the workplace as well. We’re more quickly charmed by team members who look like us, talk like us, or even act like us. And if we don’t have a method to evaluate their performance, this ungrounded fondness might sway us towards giving a promotion more than actual fact.

Step 3: Create frequent feedback exchanges

One of the most effective ways to battle against diversity bias is by gathering more data. If you set up a system of instantaneous feedback exchange, then you’ll have more data points to evaluate when a particular team member is up for a promotion. At, team leads use frequent, quick 1:1s with their team members in order to gather more impressions directly from the team members themselves. These 1:1s give team members the chance to talk up their own successes and accomplishments, and it gives managers the chance to offer ongoing, informal feedback. To maximize the effectiveness of these meetings, plan to keep these meetings to about 15 minutes in length, and instruct managers to spend more time listening than talking so they have a full picture of a team member’s growth areas and achievements.

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Data Breaks Biases

As managers, we like to think that we develop certain leadership skills that make our decisions regarding promotions, evaluations, and firings accurate and reliable. But everyone is prone to biases, and studies show that the pressures of running a growing company can prevent us from getting an accurate perspective on our employees’ efforts. Take the time to establish systems that break these biases using clear promotion criteria, peer feedback, and frequent 1:1s with your team members. These tools will not only help you retain your top talent, but they’ll give you and your entire team more confidence in your promotion process. Only then will you retain your best talent and have the strongest team members leading your company towards success.

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