May 1, 2019
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Danielle Dannenberg
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Management

Performance Management: More About Us (and our Cognitive Biases) than Our Employees

How cognitive bias connects to the choices of Conscious Leadership.

Our friend and portfolio CEO Devon Tivona of Pana recently shared this article on Cognitive Bias and Performance Management. In short, the post reflects on how managers diagnose and handle “performance problems,” suggesting that oftentimes solving or improving a performance issue hits a dead end when the manager doesn’t fully understand the problem.

To bring this to life, the post offers an example from the pinnacle of the tech world: Google. According to the author, during Google’s new manager training managers learn to attribute performance problems to one of three things:

  • Unclear expectations
  • Lack of skill
  • Lack of will

“Unfortunately, it’s not so straightforward,” the author says, pointing out that Google’s “simplistic” model invites our brains to take shortcuts, triggering three meaningful cognitive biases. I noticed that each cognitive bias the author highlights is connected to a key concept of Conscious Leadership.  

See if you can identify one of Leadership Camp’s 8 Choices of Conscious Leadership in each of these biases.

Fundamental Attribution Error

“We tend to attribute the behavior of others to their internal characteristics, instead of their circumstances.” John is lazy instead of John is unable to do a task because he is busy with other things.”

This fits into a number of boxes, but consider Choice #4: Candor. Leaders stuck on this choice choose to withhold their truth and sometimes participate in gossip. Conscious leaders, on the other hand, choose to reveal their authentic feelings and stories and commit to ending gossip.

One way a manager might shift this issue is to share his or her thoughts and judgments directly with the person with whom they are about.

Revealing Withholds

First, check if the person is open to feedback: John, are you available for feedback?

Second, share your withheld judgment: John, I noticed you didn’t get the report done on time and I made up a story that you aren’t motivated. Is that right?

Sharing your judgments can be a helpful tool for creating space around your issue. Plus, really checking can prevent you from spiraling into gossip or rightness. Further, modeling vulnerability and authenticity can help create an environment in which your colleagues or reports can be candid with you. This bi-directional feedback loop is a key part of creating a culture of candor.

Confirmation Bias

“Now that our brain has already created an incorrect attribution, we tend to seek out evidence to support that hypothesis… Since now, John is lazy, we start to find ‘evidence’ of that all over the place, and ignore any evidence to the contrary.”

Ding, ding, ding. Sounds like Choice #2 to me: Curiosity. Rather than being open to the possibility of other viable options, leaders stuck on Choice #2 believe they are right. He or she is so convinced, they are able to point to voluminous seemingly consistent evidence to support their rightness.

It’s easy to see how a commitment to being right can interfere with a manager’s understanding of the root cause of performance issues. One way a manager might shift on this issue is to play with the opposite of his or her story.

Opposite of Your Story

  • First, identify your story about the other party. In this case, John is lazy.
  • Second, find three ways the opposite of that story is true. For example, John demonstrated he is hard-working when he prioritized another task over this one.
  • Finally, find three ways that story is actually true about you. Oh right, I was lazy when I….

#3 Self-Serving Bias

“As a person’s manager (or even peer), in difficult and ambiguous situations, we’re much more likely to simplify and mis-attribute problems in a way that removes any blame from us.”

Sound familiar? Hello Choice #1: Choosing to blame others for our circumstances instead of taking 100% responsibility. As an alternative, conscious leaders can shift this by owning their issues.

Owning Your Issues

Even in a performance management situation, a conscious leader can ask “what is my part or role in this situation?”  Often leaders consciously or unconsciously create issues for themselves, and often that setup has implications for the performance outcomes of their direct reports.

Another great question is, how is this a projection of something I want to change about myself?  This is the “you spot it, you got it,” phenomenon.

It may not be fun to hold up this mirror, but ultimately owning your issues can empower conscious leaders to realize they can play an active, intentional, self-aware part in shifting difficult situations from drama to responsibility.

Danielle Dannenberg

An entrepreneur + community builder, Danielle is a Principal at MergeLane and leads growth at Camp.

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