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Volume 11, Issue 39;   September 28, 2011: The Reification Error and Performance Management

The Reification Error and Performance Management

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Just as real concrete objects have attributes, so do abstract concepts, or constructs. But attempting to measure the attributes of constructs as if they were the attributes of real objects is an example of the reification error. In performance management, committing this error leads to unexpected and unwanted results.
Perceptual illusions resulting from reification

Perceptual illusions resulting from reification. Reification also occurs in human perceptual systems. In these visual examples, we can "see" objects that aren't actually depicted in the images. In A, we see a triangle; in B, a rectangle; in C, a sphere; and in D, a plane.

The processes involved in visual reification are no doubt distinct from the reifications of performance management, but these illustrations provide powerful insight into the effects of reification when dealing with constructs. When we make reification errors, whether in perception or in logic, our experience of the world departs from its reality.

Image by Albert kok courtesy Wikimedia.

To deal with abstract concepts as if they were concrete things is to commit the reification error[Levy 1997]. For example, it's perfectly legitimate (though probably pointless) to measure an employee's average weight over the first two quarters of a fiscal year. But to believe that we can measure an employee's performance over those same two quarters is to commit the reification error.

Performance isn't a real thing — it's a construct. Since it cannot be directly measured, the results of measurements can vary with the approach of the measurer. There is little justification for preferring, in general, any particular kind of measure of any one aspect of performance.

For example, in call centers, a common performance measure is the number of calls handled. Since calls aren't concrete objects, we cannot actually measure their properties as we would measure the weight of a 100-pound sack of flour. Consequently, the effort and expertise required to handle a given call can vary significantly. When there is significant variability among calls, the mere number of calls handled is a poor measure of performance.

A useful indicator of the risk of committing the reification error is the level of abstraction of the entity in question. Here are some examples of abstract concepts relating to performance management, and ways to commit the reification error when dealing with them.

Demonstrates high levels of motivation
Motivation isn't a real thing. It cannot be measured directly. We can comment on specific behaviors as indicators of motivation, but since those behaviors are strongly context-dependent, such comments are usually of less value than we believe.
Works well with others
Since how well one works with others Since how well one works
with others isn't a real
thing, it cannot be measured
in any absolute sense
isn't a real thing, it cannot be measured in any absolute sense. But in this case something even more confusing is afoot: the effectiveness of any pairing of employees is beyond the control of either one.
Recommendations are consistent with management goals
The degree of consistency between an employee's recommendations and management goals is, of course, not a real thing. To believe that measuring it yields repeatable, meaningful results is to commit the reification error. Moreover, even when recommendations are not consistent with management goals, the elucidation of those goals is management's responsibility. How clearly those goals were enunciated, and how correct and consistent they are, can determine the alignment between those goals and any employee's recommendations.
Demonstrates consistent, effective leadership
This is yet another concept that is not a real, measurable thing. Moreover, as in "Works well with others," this component of performance is not under the full control of the performer, because the followers, too, have a say in the effectiveness of the leadership.

Reification is itself a construct. To measure the prevalence of reification errors in a performance management program would be to risk committing a reification error. Go to top Top  Next issue: How Did I Come to Be So Overworked?  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Levy 1997]
Levy, David A. Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Order from Amazon. Back

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