Leadership

Assumptions & Stereotypes: Biasing Performance Assessments

“All done work?  On vacation now?” These are a university professor’s favourite conversation starters in the spring. Most people assume that because I am not in a classroom that I’m not working. I won’t bore you with all of the stuff on my desk, but trust me, although it may not seem like it, I am working.

These well-meaning comments demonstrate the importance of both experience and empathy. Until we experience another person’s job, it is hard to understand its demands. In a recent post, I wrote about the reality TV show “Undercover Boss“, which puts bosses in roles of their employees. True understanding and empathy only come from experience. Perhaps this is why the most successful CEOs come from inside a company, or at least from within the same industry.

We undervalue experience and wisdom these days. After all, we can always look it up on the internet (or as my buddy Jeremy calls it, the wisdom machine). Yet it is only through many years of experience that we develop the deep-seated knowledge that is needed to lead a large, complex organization in a dynamic, ambiguous environment.

Many years ago I worked for the Ontario government as a policy analyst. I worked long hours and was very committed to my job. But even my friends believed the “lazy government worker” stereotype. In their eyes, no hardworking, motivated individual would work for the government, so of course, I must have it easy working there. Needless to say, it was very tempting to live up to the stereotype. It hurt that even people who knew me would assume that I would be less than hard-working.

I caught myself making one of these assumptions just this morning. There was a bureaucratic snafu around here which caused one of my colleagues a lot of grief. I immediately assumed that this problem was caused by the incompetence of one of the staff members, in other words attributing it to her personality. My colleague felt that the staff person was just overwhelmed with work and made a mistake, attributing the mistake to the situation. When I thought about it, it became clear to me that I was making a whole bunch of judgements based on my limited understanding of the staff person’s job.

The next time you start to make judgements about someone’s performance, maybe you should test for assumptions, value judgements and stereotypes. We all carry them, we just need to be aware of them to make sure that they don’t unfairly influence our assessments.

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