We recently came across this very interesting 2014 paper by Richard Murphy and Felix Weinhardt, “Top of the class: the importance of ordinal rank”. Murphy and Weinhardt looked at the long-term impact of ordinal ranking in junior schools, finding marked correlation with later scholastic achievement. They concluded the most likely mechanism leading to this effect was the improvement in associated non-cognitive skills, such as the development of confidence.
Where this research becomes particularly interesting for us is the effect on adult workplace productivity and achievement in the context of staff appraisals. Classic staff appraisals often involve ranking against peers, sometimes within a smaller local team, sometimes against the organisation as a whole, or sometimes against other teams or geographies.
Murphy and Weinhardt posit that the increased confidence arising from a high ordinal ranking lowers the cost of effort, leading to increased productivity in the ranked tasks.
So, a team member who receives a high ordinal ranking receives a boost in non-cognitive skills, invests more time in the relevant tasks and becomes more skilled at them, becomes more productive, and has a headstart along the path to success.
What about a team member who receives a lower ordinal ranking?
Murphy and Weinhardt say: “To improve productivity it would be optimal for managers … to highlight an individual’s local rank position if that individual had a high local rank. If an individual is in a high-performing peer group and therefore may have a low local rank but a high global rank a manager should make the global rank more salient.
“For individuals who have low global and local ranks, managers should focus on absolute attainment, or focus on other tasks where the individual has higher ranks.”
Murphy and Weinhardt cite a study showing that the release of ranking information increases productivity as employees strive to achieve a high ranking; they suggest, however, that “This is explained by workers becoming concerned about their rank position, as the impact occurred after the feedback policy was announced but before the information was released.”
We find this a fascinating new perspective on staff appraisal. What do you think – should you tailor your team member’s feedback to emphasise their strengths, and would this increase productivity in your organisation?