Issue 23

For real!

Antonia Onaca
de aproape 10 ani trainer, psiholog, consultant sub formă de antreprenor, intraprenor și antreprenor din nou


We have expectations from ourselves to be rational beings, maybe with very few exceptions. We certainly have these expectations from everybody else. This is most visible at the organizational level.

People HAVE TO behave rationally/reasonably/logically. We expect us, but mostly everybody else, to analyze the situations objectively, decide rationally the course of action and then implement it according to the plan. We expect to be computing machines that use predictable and accurate algorithms and operate with little or no flaw.

We expect this from our colleagues, the team, the leaders, clients and everybody in between.

Complete input, clean storage, objective processing and complete output.

I will not get into details as there is not enough space. I remember that only the introduction course at Psychology was one year long. I will however try to cover some things that will get us to RETHINK THE THINKING. I believe that if we manage to get a glimpse on how we operate, we will end up being better off than if we continue to expect and pretend the "machine-like" operating.

Let"s start by admitting that reality will never be perceived objectively.

The mere perception distorts the data even if only to store it. To be able to store the data for later access we need to connect it with other data. When we perceive we do it by filtering the data. Those filters choose what data they will store and after that they encode the data they got through (something like 0111010001101000011010010110111001101011). This is surely just the beginning because as the data stays in storage they don"t exactly stay, they interact, they change, they disappear or even create new data. As if there is not enough data contamination yet, the moment we search for, retrieve and extract it, the data gets modified again, selectively accessed and even created.

We have NO CHANCE of perceiving, storing and accessing CLEAN DATA. Think about working with this kind of thing. We do it, every day!

A fraction of this represents the Cognitive biases. There are a lot of them; however, we will talk about those that are most pervasive in organizational life. For an extended list I invite you to wikipedia "list of cognitive biases" and link from link from there on.

Since March just went through, and April actually, most organizations had the Quarterly Performance Reviews. Those awkward situations where employees and their leaders get together to argue about performance. Performance management systems have enough issues built-in them, but let"s assume for a moment that they are ok (for the sake of this article). The biggest issue is that they are used by people and for people. Here we have a new flood of issues.

The principle behind the Performance Management Tools is that if we record performance and we feedback those results to the people, we can influence future performance. Which seems plausible only if we consider the recording and the feedback as rational/objective:

  • Performance can be clearly defined
  • Performance can be objectively measured
  • Having a feedback on how you perform impacts future performance

Well, here we go! Go? Not really!

The people that provide data to that process have serious operating issues (we will call them biases)

Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in a certain way. They represent a tendency to systematic deviations (including errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory).


  1. The most obvious and intrusive error in PM actions is linked to the memory error. We talked about it in the opening of this article (the data contamination) because it messes up the actual material we"re working with (information from the past)
  2. Fundamental attribution error - The tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. This means in PM context that we will assume that the cause for performance is more about personal traits (personality, ability, motivation, ambition, intent, attitude, and so on) and less to do with luck or context. This is most visible if you count the number of times the verb to be finds its way into the speech. (You need to be more responsible, you were really proactive)
  3. Negativity bias - Psychological phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories compared with positive memories. Negativity effect - The tendency of people, when evaluating the causes of the behaviors of a person they dislike, to attribute their positive behaviors to the environment and their negative behaviors to the person"s inherent nature. Observation selection bias - the effect of suddenly noticing things that were not noticed previously - and as a result wrongly assuming that the frequency has increased. These three biases influence the actual quality as score and the content of the feedback session. They also bring into the conversation words like always or never (you"re always late, you never listen, etc.). Sounds familiar? Don"t just look at the negative side. This general assessment doesn"t always have to be negative; we can also jump to positive bias, positive effect.
  4. Confirmation bias - The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one"s preconceptions. With this, each of the party will operate with very different data during the PM session, which will lead to undesirable outcomes.
  5. Empathy gap - the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others. These super-powers we attribute to ourselves leads us to assume that we are immune from bias due to how we feel. These may affect ratings for different people, or ratings at different moments.
  6. Hot-hand fallacy - The fallacious belief that a person who has experienced success has a greater chance of further success in additional attempts. I would call this the "good student bias". You remember how, if you were a high grades student, all the teachers would have a tendency to give you higher grades or in case of a wrong answer find excuses and ignore that behavior? How about this one in the organizational setting.


  1. We have the tendency to "over-report" behavior or characteristics that are desirable and "under-report" the undesirable ones. This influences both parties in the PM talk. (social desirability bias).
  2. Illusory superiority - Overestimating one"s desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. This is most visible in feedback that is linked with review of the performance in a group task.
  3. Self-serving bias - The tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests. This is most visible in the expectations regarding the content of the feedback, we expect for the assessor to see the way we see things.
  4. Egocentric bias - Recalling the past in a self-serving manner, e.g., remembering one"s exam grades as being better than they were, or remembering a caught fish as bigger than it really was. Well … you see how this plays out.
  5. Spotlight effect - The tendency to overestimate the amount that other people notice your appearance or behavior; Illusion of transparency - People overestimate others" ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others. These two lead to the false expectation that the assessor will use more data than it actually uses when rating performance.

False consensus effect - The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them. This leads to things like: "everybody thinks this", "everybody noticed".

The list is long and I invite you to avoid the google effect when you read it.

Considering all this I am not surprised that it takes a huge effort to start the PM activities and complete them. I would procrastinate them for as long as I could or I would perceive this organizational habit as being useless or unnecessarily painful.

Well, you managed to cover this article and to think a bit about all these biases. Remember when remembering this article that there are also these three:


The urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice

Bias blind spot

The tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people, or to be able to identify more cognitive biases in others than in oneself.

Conservatism (Bayesian)

The tendency to revise one"s belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM? Only ONE THING: remember that performance assessment is never about the past. Because of this, it"s never about WHO"S RIGHT and WHO"S WRONG. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong, and that"s awesome.

The only reason why we do PM activities is to LEARN FROM THE PAST and figure out what worked so we can keep doing that and what didn"t work and how we can change it.

The most used phrase in PM activities is "WHAT WILL THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?" and "WHAT DO WE NEED TO GET THAT FUTURE?". All this can happen when there is a positive and human relationship between the two parties.

If we talk about the past, about who is right and who is wrong we get GUILT and SHAME, even if we win the argument. These feelings lead to helplessness, withdrawal, defense. People need to feel empowered to change their behaviors for the better, both parties.

Cognitive biases will always be there, there is no way to get around them. But we don"t need to. If we change the focus it won"t matter because they will contaminate data and people will focus somewhere else.




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  • Bosch
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  • Connatix
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  • Telenav
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