Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 39;   September 28, 2011: The Reification Error and Performance Management

The Reification Error and Performance Management

by

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.

To deal with abstract concepts as if they were concrete things is to commit the reification error. 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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenYGUTzPnQFYfrOTBVner@ChacGuipWEowIbGszXVcoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A Rough-Legged Hawk surveys its domainTake Any Seat: Part II
In meetings, where you sit in the room influences your effectiveness, both in the formal part of the meeting and in the milling-abouts that occur around breaks. You can take any seat, but if you make your choice strategically, you can better maintain your autonomy and power.
Tenacious under full sailThe Solving Lamp Is Lit
We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best
You've probably heard the slogan, "Do it right the first time." It makes sense for some kinds of work, but not for all. For more and more of the work done in modern organizations, doing it right the first time — or even trying to — might be the wrong way to go.
The Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost in 1999Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part I
One of the "truisms" floating around is that "You get what you measure." Belief in this assertion has led many to a metrics-based style of management, but the results have been uneven at best. Why?
Well-wishers greet physicist Stephen Hawking (in wheelchair) at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing FacilityLogically Illogical
Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure. Here are just a few.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenDPcoTcNbRlrlEHDSner@ChacmnESBVghWTyXGDbzoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.