Many performance management programs include a self-assessment component. Self-assessment is a most constructive practice, and its inclusion in these programs is advantageous to both employee and employer. But this practice can also be dangerous for employees who are unaware of the effects of a cognitive bias called the Availability Heuristic. That cognitive bias can cause some employees to produce self-assessments that are biased in favor of the employer. The bias comes about from what might be called the Availability Paradox.
The Availability Heuristic is the method we humans use to estimate the probabilities of events. We're using the Availability Heuristic [Tversky 1973] when we estimate these probabilities by sensing the difficulty of imagining or understanding the string of events that lead to the event in question.
For instance, when we ask people whether death resulting from being attacked by a shark is more likely or less likely than death from being hit by falling airplane parts, they usually answer that death from shark attack is more likely. Actually, death from being hit by falling airplane parts is 30 times more likely, but people are fooled because it's easier to imagine shark attacks, which are more common.
The Availability Paradox (my term) arises when judgments of the likelihood of events are based not only on the difficulty (or ease) of imagining the events or understanding how they could possibly arise, but also on the difficulty (or ease) of recalling such events [Schwarz 1991]. I first encountered this idea while reading a brilliant and very accessible book by Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow [Kahneman 2011]
Unfortunately, The Availability Paradox arises
when judgments of the likelihood
of events are based not only on
the ease of imagining the events
or how they could possibly
arise, but also on the
difficulty of recalling thememployers can use the Availability Paradox to depress employee self-assessments. It works like this. If I ask an employee to list six incidents in which the employee took action to improve the project management process, and then to rate himself or herself on a scale of 1-5 with respect to contributing to process improvement, the employee will produce some numerical result. But if I were to ask the same employee for a rating after requiring him or her to list 12 such incidents, that rating, on average, would be lower. The reason for this is that people include in such assessments the difficulty of recalling the incidents. Since recalling 12 incidents is more difficult than recalling six, the ratings produced for the 12-incident self-assessment are likely lower, on average, than were the ratings for the six-incident assessment.
Although it's safe to assume that some employers intentionally exploit the Availability Paradox to reduce pressure from employees for increasing compensation, the consequences of this bias are disturbing for both employee and employer. Because the consequences most likely to be overlooked are negative consequences for employers, I offer below three suggestions of possible negative consequences for employers who rely on biased self-assessments of employee performance.
- Underestimation of employee effectiveness
- To the extent that biased employee self-assessment data influences employer estimates of employee effectiveness, employers might underestimate the overall effectiveness of existing staff. Those employers who believe (mistakenly) that self-assessments are inherently biased in favor of employees are more likely to be harmed by the Availability Paradox. These effects can lead employers to hire or retain more staff than necessary, or to assign excessive staff to critical projects, which can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of low productivity.
- Trepidation about taking reasonable risks
- Employees who underestimate their own effectiveness can experience a lack of confidence that can reduce their inclination to take reasonable risks. When this reluctance expands to the organizational scale as a result of the performance management system, it can reduce overall organizational effectiveness by making the organization generally and unreasonably risk averse. These effects might be temporally correlated with — but lag slightly behind — annual performance review processes.
- Favoring less honest, less capable employees
- Some organizations use performance management system data regarding employee effectiveness to determine how to advance employees' careers. These organizations are at risk in two ways. First, employees who are more capable than their performance records would indicate are more likely to terminate voluntarily when they secure more promising career advancement opportunities. Second, employees who are willing to engage in puffery, exaggeration, and dissembling in their self-assessments are more likely to be rewarded than are their more honest peers, all other factors being equal. The result of these phenomena is a skewing of the employee population away from honest, effective people, and toward less honest, less effective people.
In some sense, organizations that intentionally exploit the Availability Paradox probably get what they deserve. But other organizations would be well advised to abandon procedures that carry any significant risk of the Availability Paradox, and to do what they can to correct for it in all processes that contain self-assessment activities. Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould 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.
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.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations
- Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status —
they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of
doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part I of a little catalog
of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
- No Tangles
- When we must say "no" to people who have superior organizational power, the message sometimes
fails to get across. The trouble can be in the form of the message, the style of delivery, or elsewhere.
How does this happen?
- Exasperation Generators: Irrelevant Detail
- When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone
else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly
to get to the point. How can we find a balance?
- More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes
miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
- Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and
in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in
the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.