The Sorting Effect

Image Credits: Exgeniadakar at Pixabay

Having undergone the more than 15 years of formal education, the “sorting effect” is definitely not an unfamiliar term. We were sorted into different classes based on perceived ability in the selected subjects taught in formalised institutions from a tender age of 10 onwards. It continues to happen at several different stages as you moved along in the education system. We are seeing some changes and reforms recently; and I wonder what impact would that have in the near future as there’ll be a time lag between the policy changes and actual impact felt by the society and economy.

Beyond the education system, when we step out into the labour market. Has the sorting effect stopped? From industries to job roles, from job ranks to designations, from salary to performance appraisals, from age to gender…Things seem more complicated here. There are at least two types of sorting going on: instrinic (self) and extrinsic (beyond self).

There remains some control (in varying degree) for individuals to choose from the available options they are present with within the labour market in their respective countries. These available options could be different depending on your country’s strategic focuses and comparative advantages in certain industries and businesses. Yet, we observed the “minimal requirements” of such options. That’s why there is no full control over the choices that we could make but a limited control. What further limits us from choose what we would like to as a job would be the information disadvantaged of what the job really entails. It is very often for one to really find out after experiencing what it is like to work in a specific company for a specific role within that specific team while being compensated at a specific level. The mechanisms of sorting could be determined by the types of courses made availability in teriary education system, and pro-business policies that were chosen over the rest which shape the economy and businesses and affects the jobs available in that labour market. As individual, we choose what we want within what we can afford in the predetermined labour landscape.

Apart from this instrinic sorting, the existing systems we have sort us as an individual. One very clear example would be the “performance” sorting. “Performance” could mean very different things in different organisations, teams, managers, and … There is no fix definition for that as far as I can tell. It’s very similar to grading system in education. Many are conditioned into thinking that the “performance” is directly attributed to one’s performance at their role. But most of us know the varying number of factors (or features in data analytics term) that affect this “performance” and the shear number of what we can’t control is huge. Bad “performance” really doesn’t mean that you are a bad worker. Being sorted as “meeting expectations” does not mean that you don’t have the capability produce exemplary works (be it services, products, program and more).

Bring it back to the context of what “performance” means and consider the dependencies and conflicts among all the stakeholders involved in this “performance review”. Some common examples are limitations to the total number of “good performance” within the company, department, team. Agenda of stakeholders for labelling or sorting certain groups of people within each category. Budget available (or how large is the pie) for compensating performance. Economy forecast, performance and regulatory changes that could be affecting your industry, business, or firm. There are so much more.

When reading about the psychological impact of sorting effect in a number of articles and books, I wonder to what degree does sorting have in the final results. It’s logical to infer certain causes and links between them. But the unknown seems a little too much. Perhaps, it’s the reason for difficulty in replicating similar results in different studies given the wide range of potential “unreducible error”.




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