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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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?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 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!

Footnotes

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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

Horses in a corralCorrales Mentales
Perhaps you've achieved every goal you've ever set yourself, but if you're like most of us, some important goals have remained elusive. Maybe you had bad luck, or you weren't in the right place at the right time. But it's just possible that you got in your own way. Getting out of your own way can help make things happen.
Abilene, Texas, USATrips to Abilene
When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question, we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.
The main reading room of the US Library of CongressPersonal Trade Secrets
Do you have some little secret tricks you use that make you and your team more effective? Do you wish you could know what secret tricks others have? Here's a way to share your secrets without risk.
Winslow Homer's painting, BlackboardFill in the Blanks
When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor WatsonHow to Make Good Guesses: Tactics
Making good guesses probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make guesses. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that. Here are some tactics for guessing.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Representative Don Young, Republican of AlaskaComing June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
Filling a form in hardcopyAnd on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.