The warning reads: "Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear." While driving, you likely don't think twice about it as you have probably seen and read this warning hundreds of times. It's a realistic warning about the dangers that can come from a distorted point of view. We see the world through a lens shaped and molded by culture and our experiences. Are you aware of your performance management blind spots? In a complex and fast-paced workplace, leaders need to be able to recognize and avoid the performance management pitfalls that come from common organizational dysfunctions and cognitive biases.
Why recognizing performance management blind spots matters
Cognitive neuroscience research over the past few decades confirms that our biases are normal and flawed. Many decisions we make, especially those about people, are heavily influenced by our cognitive biases.
Research has also demonstrated that noticing cognitive biases takes intention and awareness. Left unchallenged cognitive biases result in inaccurate views of performance. These blind spots have invisible yet powerful effects on our lives and those we lead.
The following popular video demonstrates the impact of blind spots. Watch the video of two separate groups passing a basketball and count how many times the white team passes the ball.
Recognizing cognitive biases requires deep self-awareness. Generally, leaders find it challenging to achieve a higher level of awareness because they spend much of the workday rushing from meeting to meeting, having too much to get done, or taking shortcuts with decision-making for the sake of time.
Setting clear expectations and providing fair, honest, and timely performance feedback is essential for bringing out the best in people. A lack of feedback can either launch or shortcut a career. Also, most leaders recognize that their followers are the company's greatest asset. Every result is the direct contribution of someone, somewhere, doing something.
Effective performance management has broad personal and organizational implications requiring leaders to account for the powerful impact of cognitive biases and organizational dysfunctions.
How to recognize cognitive biases
Everyone experiences automatic thoughts triggered by the environment and emotions. These shortcuts are often highly believable. Sometimes these subconscious algorithms are helpful. Like when I saw a wild grizzly bear this summer, I knew to stay in the car at a safe distance because it could attack.
However, unlike our computers, none of us are entirely logical. Sometimes these automatic ways of thinking reflect inaccurate judgments in processing. These errors are described as cognitive bias, an assumption that is skewed. Sometimes we might jump to the worst conclusion for a meeting or blame ourselves for things that were not our fault.
Here are a few of the more common assumptions that lead to performance management cognitive biases:
Positive and Negative Stereotypes: Past performance is how performance is always going to be. These broad generalizations and assumptions can be negative performance presumptions, such as incompetence in one area or another or presuming a lack of character or trustworthiness. The stereotypes can also be favorable performance presumptions, such that the leader doesn't follow up on performance or always blames others and the environment for poor performance.
Recency Effect: When the last few weeks or current event influence perceptions of how performance is for the entire evaluation period.
Halo or Horns Effect: A strength or weakness in one area shifts perceptions of how performance is in all areas. Employees are given the benefit of the doubt, success is assumed, or employees are put in a box, and failure is assumed.
All or Nothing: Performance is either one extreme or the other for aspects of performance. Feedback on one part of performance influences how all performance is viewed. One exceptional strength or weakness seeps into ratings across different areas.
Elitism: Individuals are perceived as superior or inferior to others because of certain aspects such as longevity with the company, degrees held, previous positions, or visible characteristics seen through a positive or negative filter.
Jumping to Conclusions: Rushing to give numerical scores for a speed advantage rather than wasting time considering performance as a whole. Scoring generates a number; therefore, it must be rational and objective, right? This data closes minds to new or contradictory evidence.
Contrast Effect: A leader compares performance only to the last person evaluated instead of performance standards in a series of evaluations.
Attribution Error: A leader interprets the performance of others based on beliefs and opinions rather than rational facts.
The following Cognitive Bias Codex graphic identifies over 180 identified cognitive biases:
How to recognize organizational dysfunctions
There is no perfect leader, and there is no perfect organization. It is best to consider them works in progress. Organizational dysfunctions are systemic and affect every leader and follower in the organization.
A fast-paced digital and complex workplace creates situations that can impair leadership perceptions making them more vulnerable to cognitive biases and developing bad habits.
Common organizational dysfunctions include:
Absence of feedback culture: Organizational culture is the one thing that impacts everything. Performance management requires fair, balanced, and honest feedback to be effective. Workplace cultures that can't accept interesting failure or have high leader-follower power distance create barriers for leaders to receive and give feedback.
Role overload: Doing more with less and working leader roles keeps leaders rushing from meeting to meeting and spending enough thoughtful time soliciting and providing meaningful feedback.
Lack of training: Organizations wanting to reduce costs cut performance management training investments and make a flawed assumption that every leader knows how to handle performance management.
Lack of process: To avoid having one more process or a policy that no one follows, companies avoid establishing the criteria between what is preferred versus required performance management standards.
Lack of monitoring and accountability: No updates or companywide reporting to create check-ins and organizational alignment on performance standards.
Lack of continuous improvement: No after-action reviews with leaders and employees on the performance management processes to understand what is working and is not. Leaders are left to re-create the wheel repeatedly.
3 Helpful Performance Management Thinking Habits
The first step is becoming aware that you, like everyone, experience automatic thoughts that, if left unchallenged, can profoundly impact your leadership and those you lead. Next, here are three helpful performance management thinking habits:
Reflection is a powerful tool for helping you create helpful thinking habits. Consider the list of cognitive biases and organizational dysfunctions. Do you recognize yourself or your workplace in any of these?
Examine the evidence for and against your thoughts in each performance management situation. What is the evidence for believing that your thoughts are true? It is easy to create reasons why a thought you hold is true, but you may find it helpful to get help from others on why a particular view might not always be accurate.
Conduct performance calibration meetings. Invite peers and your leader to review and critique your performance reviews before they are finalized. This can help you rationally consider the evidence for or against a perception you hold. You may find it helpful to ask them to play the "devil's advocate" so they know it is OK to challenge your thinking.
So what is your cognitive bias or organizational dysfunction challenge?
Kahneman, D., & Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Korteling, J. E., Brouwer, A. M., & Toet, A. (2018). A Neural Network Framework for Cognitive Bias. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1561.
Moody, J. (2015). Rising above cognitive errors: Improving searches, evaluations, and decision making. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Rachman, S., & Shafran, R. (1999). Cognitive distortions: Thought–action fusion. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy: An International Journal of Theory & Practice, 6(2), 80-85.
Whalley, M. (2019). Cognitive distortions: An introduction to how CBT describes unhelpful ways of thinking. Psychology Tools.