Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 32;   August 6, 2008: Projection Errors at Work

Projection Errors at Work

by

Often, at work, we make interpretations of the behavior of others. Sometimes we base these interpretations not on actual facts, but on our perceptions of facts. And our perceptions are sometimes erroneous.

One class of errors in judgment is what psychologists call projection errors. A projection error is the unconscious assumption that others think, feel, judge, or perceive more or less what we do. For instance, those who drink (abstain from) alcohol tend to overestimate (underestimate) the drinking habits of others. This phenomenon is common, but we tend to underestimate its importance at work.

President Richard Nixon resigns

It's often said — with some disdain — that politicians lie. But often, political lies are accompanied by their constituents' wishful interpretations or by their willing suspension of disbelief. People hear what they want to hear, or they interpret words in a manner consistent with what those words would mean if they had said them. Since actual lies are fraught with risk for the liars, misleaders search for alternatives. Politicians who wish to mislead often don't have to lie — they must only find words that encourage projection errors. Photo courtesy George Mason University Special Collections and Archives.

Underestimating the incidence of projection errors is itself a projection error. For instance, those who believe that they make our work-related decisions only on solid, legitimate bases tend to believe that others do, too. On the other hand, those who believe that at times it is necessary to make decisions on more "convenient" bases, regard those who make only principled choices as weak and naïve. Because the more ruthless among us want to see themselves as strong, they project their own "weakness" on others, and conclude that most people operate in a straightforward manner. From whichever side of the fence we view our colleagues, we see their choices as relatively freer of projection errors than they actually are.

Here are three examples of situations in which projection errors tend to occur at work.

Negotiation
In negotiations, the assumption that the negotiation partner behaves rationally (by our own lights) is a common form of the error. For example, when we "sweeten" an offer, using incentives we believe will be attractive, we rarely consider the possibility that external constraints unrelated to the negotiation might prevent the acceptance of any offer whatsoever. When our offers are rejected, we label the rejections as irrational.
Keep an open mind about the motives of and constraints upon negotiation partners.
Performance reviews
Keep an open mind about
the motives of and constraints
upon negotiation partners
In performance reviews, the supervisor is at risk of making a projection error when some aspect of the subordinate's behavior happens to match a weakness of the supervisor. As a defense against his or her own feelings of fallibility, the supervisor might then "ding" the subordinate for the behavior that the supervisor unconsciously exhibits.
When undertaking a performance review, meditate on similarities between yourself and your subordinate. When you find a shared weakness, be especially alert to projection errors.
Workplace politics
Most of us, from time to time, have dark motives we hold in check, and dark thoughts on which we do not act. We feel bad about them, and sometimes we have uncomfortable feelings about them. To protect ourselves from this discomfort, we sometimes project these dark thoughts onto others. We attribute dark motives to rivals, whether or not we have evidence for such motives. Relationships suffer.
Your enemy might not really be your enemy. You might just be having difficulty with a part of yourself.

Projection errors abound elsewhere, too. To detect a possible projection error, look for strong reactions to people — positive or negative. When you find one, consider the possibility that the two of you share something of which you might not be fully aware. Go to top Top  Next issue: Conflicts of Interest in Reporting  Next Issue

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