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's 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 senseisn'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.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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