Appraisal season? Beware…

Here’s a little puzzle for you before you embark on appraisal season…

What’s the difference between these two scenarios?

First, let’s imagine you’re reviewing your own performance over the past few weeks, months or even year  (they still do annual appraisals where you work? Don’t worry; they’ll catch up eventually).

Yes, there’s that deadline that got missed. It didn’t exactly get the conference off to a flying start but hey, stuff happens. Your email to the printer had got stuck in their spam filter – how were you supposed to know? And the printer should’ve known that the order was due any minute, so how come they hadn’t asked what was going on?

And then of course there’s the presentation that didn’t quite go to plan. But you were crazy busy and in what parallel universe were you supposed to find the time to rehearse? No; not your fault then.

Feeling pretty confident, you’re sure your manager will overlook a couple of glitches that weren’t of your making when compared to all your successes, which are down to your brilliant thinking and drive to deliver.

Second, you turn your attention to a team member’s performance, on which you’ve been asked to comment as part of their appraisal. You’ve noticed that they seem to lack confidence in meetings, and think it’s due to a general hesitancy about their ability. They’re probably right.

Admittedly, they have got great relationships with different stakeholders, but that’s no doubt due to the team around them. Truth be told they got lucky there.

What’s going on in these two appraisal situations? A very common occurrence.

When we evaluate our own performance, we attribute our successes to ourselves, some inner quality or ability that we possess. By contrast our screw-ups are typically attributed to external factors – technology being a prime suspect, but also other people, or just sheer bad luck.

Yet when it comes to evaluating the performance of others we tend to do the opposite. We attribute their successes to external factors, or simply luck – but not the individual. That kicks in when we examine shortfalls in performance: we attribute these to their personality, their ability (or lack thereof), or qualities that may be part of their character.

This difference in how we perceive ourselves compared to others, cutting far more slack for us than them, is so common it’s become well documented and even has its own name: the ‘fundamental attribution error’. We make the error of overestimating the impact of someone’s characteristics on what happens and underestimating the impact of external factors. This shows up in all kinds of ways, for example, lack of sympathy for an innocent victim, who somehow ‘brought it on themself’, and an overestimation of our capabilities (the old saw about how most of us think we’re above average, which is statistically impossible). But we make the error differently when it’s applied to us, as the above scenarios show.

So what?

So that’s something you need to stay on the lookout for as you approach appraisals – your own and everyone else’s.

Dawn is the author of How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon

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