Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published a thought-provoking piece in Harvard Business Review this month. Zenger and Folkman run a leadership development consultancy. They conducted research on supervisor evaluations of subordinates. They noticed that some managers are much harder graders than others (not surprisingly). Moreover, they discovered that, "People who work for easy graders are perceived to be more effective leaders by their colleagues than those who work for hard graders." What did the conclude from these data? Zenger and Folkman argue that, "perhaps the ratings are in some way self-fulfilling, and the leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse."
What do I make of these findings and interpretations of the data? First, I will acknowledge that prior research does show that this "self-fulfilling prophecy" effect does exist. However, I would be careful about how these data have been interpreted. First, Zenger and Folkman examined 360 managers, and then identified 50 easy graders and 31 hard graders. Why not equal amounts of easy and hard graders? Why these particular breakpoints for looking at the managers at the extremes in their dataset? They may have a good explanation, but they do not provide it in the HBR article. Second, they fail to prove that objective differences in performance do not exist among the groups of employees in their study. Perhaps the hard graders have lower performing units for a variety of reasons. Third, they do not address the fact that they have simply measured how colleagues perceive the employees in this study. They do not actually measure performance objectively. Thus, it could be that easy graders talk about their employees in a very positive way, thereby influencing how colleagues perceive these employees. The same may occur for hard graders in the opposite direction. Thus, employees do not become awesome because their managers think they are awesome. Instead, colleagues come to believe employees are awesome because their managers talk so positively about them within the organization. For these reasons (and others), I would be careful about the conclusions and interpretations being made by these researchers.