On Wednesdays, We Rate Our Peers: How Your Social Stance in the Office Can Affect Peer Performance Ratings
February 12, 2021 | By Michael Adkison
Researcher: Christopher C. Rosen
A staple in the category of teen comedy movies, the 2004 film Mean Girls depicts the complex social structure of a high school, as new student Cady, played by Lindsay Lohan, works her way up the food chain, navigating through self-righteous cliques and the high school hierarchy.
One comedic detail which speaks truth is the idea of information and its positive relationship with a central role in the social hierarchy: Cady finds that her growing social standing leads to increased popularity with more and more secrets being divulged to her, like how queen bee Regina George got a nose job and is secretly cheating on her boyfriend.
And that relationship of information and popularity works in the film from the outside-in, too; in one famous montage, students of varying social standing share all of the information they know about Regina: “She has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus.” “I hear her hair is insured for $10,000.” “One time, she met John Stamos on a plane, and he told her she was pretty.”
You might be asking, what does Mean Girls have to do with my office? Well, hopefully, your office is not as clique-ridden as Mean Girls, but the truth is that network position and access to information go hand-in-hand. And those two concepts can especially come to play in employee peer reviews. In an effort to get the “inside scoop” on how an employee handles the workplace, managers and offices often turn to peer reviews, which ask that employee’s co-workers to rate him or her.
The only problem is, as researchers Helen H. Zhao, Ning Li, T. Brad Harris, Christopher C. Rosen, and Xinan Zhang write, most workplaces ignore the fact “that peer ratings are embedded in complex social systems featuring unique and uneven interactions between peers.” Their article, “Informational Advantages in Social Networks: The Core-periphery Divide in Peer Performance Ratings,” analyzes how social standing in the workplace and access to information can distort peer reviews, revealing only parts of a complete picture.
Everyone knows Regina George in Mean Girls, which means that Regina has dirt on just about everyone. Likewise, employees holding more central positions in the office’s social network are more than likely have significant access to information on their co-workers and can provide the most accurate depictions in peer ratings.
The Outside, Looking In
Regardless of whether your workplace has cliques, many large organizations follow a core-periphery network structure, separating members of the network based on their social standing. “Such structures are characterized by a relatively cohesive subgroup of core actors and a set of peripheral actors that are loosely connected to the core.” Divisions like this boil down to the idea that actors in the core are, well, the core.
Consider, for example, one scene in Mean Girls, in which a character seeking revenge cuts unflattering holes in Regina George’s tank top. When Regina sees the holes, instead of fuming with rage, she shrugs and flaunts off the new style. The next day, every girl in the school has cut similar holes in their own shirts, just to be like Regina. The school’s sense of style went from the core, Regina, to the periphery, the less-prominent girls at the high school.
“Owing to their position in the social network, core members have greater access to performance information about other members via direct and indirect pathways.” As such, when offices ask for peer reviews of a co-worker, the researchers posit “that core and peripheral members will provide different ratings of a common target, with core members providing more accurate ratings owing to informational advantages they possess.”
In developing their hypotheses about how network position impacts the accuracy of peer reviews, the researchers draw from information processing theory, which explains the way people understand information.
For example, let’s say you had an officemate named Cynthia who gets all of the good gossip going on the office and knows all of the ins and outs in the workplace. Information processing theory would say that whenever Cynthia learns new information about her coworkers, she processes that information and then stores it away for “later retrieval.” So, when Cynthia’s boss asks for a peer review on her coworker Kenneth, she can recall all the information she has on him.
But research also shows that “in the absence of relevant information, employees rely on stereotypes and other non-job relevant heuristics when rating performance,” which can lead to inaccurate information.
The Burn Book
One of the central conflicts of Mean Girls revolves around the Burn Book, a vicious scrapbook the Plastics (i.e., popular girls) use to air out their grievances against their classmates. Some of it is accurate, based on the information the Plastics have obtained, like their gym teacher’s inappropriate relationship with a student. Not all of the information is accurate, though, including the entry on Miss Norbury, Cady’s math teacher whom, in an act of frustration, Cady stereotypes and catalogues in the Burn Book as a drug dealer.
Again, hopefully your workplace doesn’t have a Burn Book, but this idea reflects the researchers’ notion that “a member’s connectedness in a network reflects their access to firsthand and secondhand informational pathways, which ultimately serve to inform their ratings of others in the network.”
The researchers conducted two separate studies, surveying employees at different firms in China to investigate just how much this core-periphery relationship corresponds with peer reviews.
In the first study, the researchers focused on one Chinese startup technology firm, which “prides itself on being a ‘boundaryless’ workplace whereby workflow is not dictated by formally prescribed roles.” In this sample, 31 employees were categorized as “core members,” with 70 “peripheral members,” and the researchers found that core members’ access to performance information about coworkers generally leads to more accurate peer reviews.
In an effort to cross-validate their findings, the researchers conducted a second study that incorporates conscientiousness, “a trait that taps into behavioral tendencies (e.g., being planful, dependable, and achievement oriented) that have traditionally epitomized an ideal employee.”
The second study consisted of a sample of 605 workers rating their peers, and the results found that “core member ratings were more strongly correlated with conscientiousness than peripheral member ratings,” thus providing evidence to support the researchers’ central thesis (i.e., that core members provide more valid performance ratings than members of the peripery).
Trying to Make Peer Evaluations Happen
Sure, peer ratings have their benefits — they provide the inside-scoop on the goings on in the office. But accepting these reviews as the end-all-be-all is naïve and ignores the full picture. Office politics can be detrimental, but denying their existence can be ignorant. Workplaces often have insiders and outsiders, and such designations can result in knowledge gaps.
As the researchers say, “members occupying core (vs. peripheral) network positions will provide systematically different assessments of their peers’ performance due to differences in the firsthand and secondhand performance information available about the ratee.”
Luckily, that doesn’t mean abandoning peer ratings as a whole; their drawbacks don’t mean we should ignore their benefits. Instead, “managers should avoid placing excessive confidence in peer ratings without considering the network in which an employee is embedded.”
Much like the Burn Book, peer reviews might only give half the story, and forgetting that could make all the difference.