Why Your Observations Are Wrong

Do you observe people?

Of course you do; we all do.  Whether you’re making assessments of an interview candidate, observing your team during a meeting, or meeting a prospective in-law for the first time.  We’re always consciously and unconsciously observing and making assessments.

In business, these anecdotal assessments determine hiring decisions, salaries, promotions, and assignments.  Virtually every decision we make is based upon our firsthand observation.  The problem is the conclusions we reach based on our personal observations are often wrong.

Here are the three most common problems with observations, and tips to overcome them.

1. It’s a snapshot.
When you’re observing someone, it’s a single moment in time.  You didn’t see the 24 hours leading up to your moment of observation.  It may have been the worst 24 hours of their life, or the best.  We can’t be expected to dive into the nuances of everyone’s backstory.  What we can do is give people the benefit of the doubt.  If in a single moment, if someone seems unfocused, frazzled, ill at ease, or some other less desirable trait, grant them the space to reset.  Try not to overemphasize these single snapshots.  Assess people from a variety of points of view, in a variety of situations over time.

2. It’s biased.
There is a huge volume of research on workplace biases.  Even the most well-intentioned people are biased.  The biases we think about are usually related to race, gender, age, or quantifiable factors.  But there’s another type of bias that can be even more insidious:  self-affirmation bias.  For example, imagine Joe from the product team cut you off in the cafeteria line.  You now think Joe is pretty rude.  In his product training meeting the next day, you’re subconsciously looking for things Joe does that reaffirm your belief that Joe is rude.  What’s worse is, your brain takes it one step further.  You’ll tune out anything Joe does that suggests he isn’t rude.  Joe may not have even realized he stepped in front of you that day in the cafeteria.  But now your brain is working overtime to prove itself right.

When we get a lens on someone, our brains don’t like editing the lens because it takes mental energy.  It’s easier to create a reality confirming to our current assumptions, and move on.  Unfortunately, that reality is often based on inaccurate assumptions.

3. It’s about you, not them.
Who do you think is a “good boss?” Why do you think that?  Probably because they do things and say things you like while other bosses don’t.  The way we assess things is in reference to our own experience.  If you had a boss that screamed at you everyday, that’s your bar for a bad leader.  If you had a boss that was nice, but a little frazzled, that might be your bar for a bad leader.  Instead of comparing people to other people, try comparing someone to an earlier version of themselves.  Is this person more outgoing than they use to be?  Are they more strategic?  You want to evaluate improvement against objective criteria, versus your own internal bias.

Next time you’re assessing someone, either anecdotally or formally, test your conclusions against these three factors.

It’s hard to pull yourself out of the equation, but when someone else’s career is at stake, you don’t want to make decisions based on faulty assumptions.