The Mistakes Managers Make When Observing Their Employees (And How to Fix Them)

June 23, 2017

Managers rely a lot on their observations to evaluate their employees, although there are some fundamental flaws with that approach.

Managers observe their employees every day. And those anecdotal assessments determine hiring decisions, salaries, promotions and assignments. In fact, virtually every decision a boss makes is influenced by their first-hand observations. 

The problem? The conclusions managers reach based on their observations are often wrong.

Here are the three common problems with manager's observations, and tips for managers for overcoming them.

1. Observations are but 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.

Of course, we can’t expect everyone to dive into the nuances of someone’s backstory. What we can do is give people the benefit of the doubt. If, in a single moment, someone seems unfocused, frazzled or some other less-than-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. Observations are invariably biased.

There is a huge volume of research that says we all are unconsciously biased, to some degree. The biases we tend to think about are usually related to race, gender or age.

But there are other types of biases that can be even more insidious, like confirmation 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 confirm 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 would suggest 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 that lens because it takes a lot of mental energy. Unfortunately, that can lead to inaccurate assumptions. Again, that's why it is so critical to get 360-degree feedback on your employees, and doing your best to value that feedback equally.

3. Observations are often about you, not them. 

The way we assess things is in reference to our own experience. If you had an employee that complains everyday, that’s your bar for a bad worker. If you had an employee that was nice, but a little frazzled, that might be your bar for a bad employee.

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 factors.

It’s hard to pull yourself out of the equation, but when someone else’s career is at stake, bosses shouldn’t make decisions based on faulty assumptions. Unfortunately, observations are often faulty – which is why it's essential to get feedback from multiple people, as well as looking at more objective performance metrics.

*Image from Edith Soto, Flickr

Lisa Earle McLeod and Elizabeth McLeod work with organizations to improve competitive differentiation and emotional engagement. Check out their LinkedIn Learning courses here.