Human Resource Management: A Critique of the “Self-Other Agreement: Comparing Its Relationship with Performance in the U.S. and Europe.”

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The self-other agreement or, to use another name, interpersonal perception, is a method of reviewing someone’s performance which takes their own perception of their performance as well as the views of those around them. In this article, the authors, having first acknowledged that their subject matter has only been systematically studied within the U.S. (Atwater, Waldman, Ostroff, Robie & Johnson, 2005, p. 25), then go on to propose that the self-other agreement is influenced primarily by control theory, in that someone who wants to be seen in a certain light will “make behavioural changes in an attempt to modify her supervisor’s perceptions” (Atwater, Waldman et al, 2005, p. 25-26). While it was shown that in all the countries looked at, self-assessment of performance was higher than the assessments given by either peers or subordinates (Atwater, Waldman et al, 2005, p. 36), results varied as a result of how highly individualism is prized in different countries; Denmark and France were given as examples of countries with a low emphasis on individualism. Generally speaking, in Europe other factors were taken into consideration when it came to performance review, resulting in the performance reviews of managers reacting in a linear manner to the reviews of subordinates in countries which prized individualism, whereas in countries with less of an emphasis on individualism such a linear relationship with the reviews of subordinates did not exist. This seems to be in contrast with the U.S., in which, while the self-other agreement has been determined to work best when it is not taken in a vacuum, but instead seen as part of a greater, three-dimensional whole (Atwater, Waldman et al, 2005, p. 27), it is still the only factor taken into consideration when doing performance reviews.

The article does not, however, address the problems inherent in using control theory, which is the basis for this version of self-other agreement:

The theoretical rationale underlying self–other agreement and its relationship with performance and other outcomes (e.g., promotions) stems from control theory. Control theory (Carver & Scheier, 1981) proposes that individuals are continuously matching their behavior to goals or standards. (Atwater, Waldman, et al, p. 25)

Control theory, by this definition, could be used to alter the perception of someone’s performance. Also, while the article does make some attempt to account for the differences between cultures by mentioning the cultural dimensions used to try and account for those differences such as “Hofstede’s four dimensions (masculinity/femininity (MF), power distance, individualism/collectivism, and uncertainty avoidance” (Atwater, Waldman, et al, 2005, p. 28), I don’t feel there is really any way of comparing the U.S and Europe as a whole in terms of how the self-other agreement affects performance.

There may be a slight problem with the idea of control theory being used as a determining factor in the self-other agreement as applied to performance appraisals and reviews. According to the article, control theory states that

individuals must do three things to bring their behavior in line with goals. First, they must have a goal they are trying to achieve (e.g., positive perception by one’s supervisor that they are technically competent). Second, they must recognize that their behavior, or the individual’s perception is not in line with that goal. Third, they need to enact behavior in an attempt to meet the goal. In this case, if the leader is self- aware and realizes that her goal to be viewed as technically competent by her boss has not been achieved, she may decide to pursue training opportunities, or to take time to demonstrate her technical competence to her boss. (Atwater, Waldman et al, 2005, p. 26)

In other words, using control theory, an employee could effectively change the way others see her, thus effectively rendering a performance review, and indeed the whole concept of agreed performance standards (Stredwick, 2001, p. 243) useless. So any research into a subject that involves the known use of control theory without indicating what parameters have been set to account for possible effects of the theory is automatically suspect.

As mentioned above, I think that it is nearly impossible to generalize in quite the fashion we see here, and still get coherent results. All of Europe is a big place – it isn’t feasible that all the different cultures (and more specifically all the different workplace cultures) could be boiled down enough to fit into any criteria that the article might use to compare the workplace performances of Europe as a whole to anybody else. The same could arguably be said for the U.S. since it covers such a large stretch of land.

As noted by Schwartz, “Hofstede sought dimensions of cross-cultural variations in the responses of more than 117,000 employees of multi-national business corporations in 40 nations. Based on an approach that takes the national sample rather than the individual person as the unit of analysis, Hofstede delivered what he calls…culture-level dimensions” (Schwartz, 1994, p. 86). Hofstede’s four dimensions (masculinity/femininity (MF), power distance, individualism/collectivism, and uncertainty avoidance) are widely accepted and have been used by numerous researchers to compare different cultural groups. (Atwater, Waldman, et al, 2005, p. 28)

The nature of Hodstede’s four dimensions do go some way into explaining how the cultures are simplified into a form where they can be compared with the U.S., but they don’t really go far enough. While the article notes that when employees are being reviewed under mutually agreed performance plans (Stredwick, 2001, p. 239), factors other than the reviews of those employees around them come into play, it doesn’t take that thought to its conclusion. Therefore, the article offers Britain and Italy together (Atwater, Waldman, et al, 2005, p. 28) without seeming to give any consideration for any additional factors that may come into play in their respective working cultures. It is true that without the dimensions of Hofstede not even this could be done since the two cultures are so entirely different (Atwater, Waldman et al, 2005, p. 25), but simply looking at one aspect of a performance review without making any reference to any alternative factors which may have an effect on those reviews.

In summary, while this article is very well researched and thought out, with its references to control theory and the use of Hofstede’s four dimensions (Atwater, Waldman, et al, p. 28) as a form of accounting for the varying differences in how business is conducted in European countries to let the article refer to European culture as a whole (or, perhaps more accurately, two holes, since a masculinity\individualism matrix (Atwater, Waldman et al, 2005, p. 33) seems to be the defining attribute used), there were some problems with the subject matter. On the one hand, the authors mention control theory early on in the article but fail to set up any parameters for dealing with the fallout of that theory being consciously used to affect performance, and on the other hand, while the article does try to use the (mentioned above) four dimensions to account for the differences between the European cultures as a way of simplifying matters for the article’s main point about the differences between the U.S. and Europe in terms of the relation of the ‘self-other agreement’ to job performance, but I feel that the article took too much on itself by trying to explain the differences between the U.S. and Europe, when Europe itself is made up of so many vastly different cultures.

References

Atwater L., Waldman D., Ostroff C., Robie C. & Johnson K. M (March 2005). Self-other agreement: Comparing its relationship with performance in the U.S. and Europe. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 13 (1), 25-38.

Stredwick, J. (2001). An introduction to human resource management. Oxford: Butterworth_Heinneman.